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UNC law professors speak out against proposal to close poverty center

Three-quarters of the faculty members of the University of North Carolina’s School of Law signed a statement late Friday denouncing recommendations from a special committee of the university system’s governing board to cut a poverty-focused academic center.

The Chapel Hill law school’s UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, which receives no direct state funding and subsists largely off a $120,000 private grant, is one of three centers facing closure after a months-long review of university centers and institutes.

UNCThe petition, signed by 64 out of the 83 faculty and emeritus professors listed on the law school’s website, asks that the poverty center be kept open and references questions about whether the poverty center was targeted because of criticism its director, Gene Nichol, has lobbed against Republican state leaders. Nichol’s editorials, published in the (Raleigh) News & Observer have accused the state legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory of turning their backs on the needs of the poorest residents of the state.

UNC Board of Governor members receive their appointments from the state legislature, and all 32 currently serving received nominations and approvals from a Republican-dominated legislature.

“Punishing a professor for expressing his views – views always carefully supported by facts and rigorous analysis – chills the free speech that is central to the University’s mission,” the law professors wrote. “Such active suppression of free speech contravenes the very lifeblood of a public university, where dialogue and dissent must be permitted to survive and indeed to flourish if scholars are to fulfill their missions of contributing to the collective knowledge of the commonwealth.”

The UNC Board of Governors are expected to make its final decision Friday about whether to close the three centers at its monthly meeting being held on the UNC-Charlotte campus. (Click here for background on the issue.)

Though not facing closure, the UNC Center for Civil Rights has also faced tough questions from the UNC board of governors, with one conservative member accusing the civil rights center of being politically-motivated and concentrating too much on racial equality cases.

Here’s a portion of the letter, signed by 64 46 of UNC School of Law’s faculty members:

We, the undersigned members of the UNC School of Law Faculty, write in opposition to the recent recommendation of a working group of the UNC Board of Governors (BOG) to close the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, and we stand in support of the advocacy work of the Center for Civil Rights in the face of a pending suggestion that it narrow its activities. Both of these centers are housed at the UNC School of Law. The recommendation to close the Poverty Center, if implemented, will deprive North Carolinians of critical research and education on poverty; chill academic freedom and inquiry; and hurt our law students who desperately need and greatly benefit from the real-world experience that interning there provides. Moreover, the proposal by some members of the BOG working group that the Center for Civil Rights be prohibited from suing the state or its political subdivisions – the usual defendants in civil rights suits – would fundamentally curtail its important work on behalf of marginalized groups. We urge the Board of Governors not to accept the working group’s recommendations regarding these Centers.

The Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity meets the pressing need in the state of North Carolina for research and education on the subject of poverty. Over the past decade, our state has experienced the greatest increase in concentrated poverty in the country. The Center has continually sought to call attention to this pressing fact, as well as others that many would prefer to ignore. These include that 25% of all children live in poverty, including 40% of children of color. The Center has for the past decade provided indispensable research and highlighted policies that would benefit the poor. Closing the Poverty Center will deprive North Carolinians of much-needed facts and analysis not available elsewhere.

Similarly, the Center for Civil Rights has long been an important institution at UNC and in the state, training the next generation of lawyers on these important issues, providing advice and representation to the state’s most marginalized communities, fighting to end our state’s legacy of segregated schooling, and working to ensure that low-wealth neighborhoods do not bear the brunt of environmental degradation. Prohibiting the Center for Civil Rights from suing the state or municipalities – typically the central defendants in any civil rights litigation – would eliminate an essential tool to accomplish its mission.

To the extent that the working group’s recommendation regarding the Poverty Center is based on animus for our colleague and former dean, Gene Nichol, the Poverty Center’s director, we decry it. Professor Nichol has been a prominent and thoughtful critic of proposals that exacerbate inequality and drive low-income people into ever deeper destitution. Punishing a professor for expressing his views – views always carefully supported by facts and rigorous analysis – chills the free speech that is central to the University’s mission. Such active suppression of free speech contravenes the very lifeblood of a public university, where dialogue and dissent must be permitted to survive and indeed to flourish if scholars are to fulfill their missions of contributing to the collective knowledge of the commonwealth.

Click here to read the letter in its entirety, and to see which UNC law professors signed the statement.

Note: This post has been updated to reflect an increase in the professors who have signed on to the letter. As of 2 p.m.  Monday, 64 out of the 83 faculty and emeritus professors at the law school have signed.

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