The response comes after a working group tasked with reviewing the UNC system’s 237 centers and institutes recommended the elimination of the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity. Some board members also suggested that the Center for Civil Rights stop engaging in litigation against the state and municipalities — which law professors say would limit their work.
“Such active suppression of free speech contravenes the very lifeblood of a public university, where dialogue and dissent must be permitted to survive,” the statement said.
Some faculty believe the recommended closing of the poverty center is an attempt to chill the free speech of Gene Nichol, the center’s director, who is known for his passionate editorials opposing Republican state leadership.
Jack Boger, dean of UNC’s law school, said faculty were distressed to hear the poverty center might close since it does a lot of good work.
Boger said academic freedom is at risk because the board is suggesting that they will take action if they disagree with what faculty members say.
“That’s what would strike at a university’s core circumstances, that the first-rate university is a place where people are permitted to speak freely and controversially on lots of issues,” Boger said.
Conflicting court rulings regarding the free speech rights of public employees such as professors make the topic a national debate, said Victoria Ekstrand, a UNC media law professor.
“It’s about whether the employee’s interest in speaking outweighs the employer’s interest in regulating that expression,” she said.
Despite tenure protection for some professors, said Bill Marshall, UNC law professor, there are other ways to target professors in ways that limit their free speech.
Nichol said the poverty center’s shutting won’t deter him from speaking out.
“When the poverty center is abolished, I’ll have more time to write, to speak and to protest North Carolina’s burgeoning war on poor people,” Nichol said in a statement Wednesday.
Joseph Kennedy, a UNC law professor, said while Nichol was dean of the law school, he oversaw the creation of the poverty center, the Center for Civil Rights and the Center for Banking & Finance. Kennedy said all three centers do work that contributes to their professions.
“What’s the difference between banking and poverty? Is it political advocacy just because the group you’re studying doesn’t have the money to hire their own lawyers?” he said.
Brian Balfour, policy director at the right-leaning Civitas Institute, said he thinks the review of the centers was a way to improve universities’ efficiency. He said the idea the review is ideologically based does not seem sensible considering the board had to evaluate more than 200 centers.
But Tamar Birckhead, director of clinical programs at the law school and an author of the school’s original statement, said closing the poverty center will harm both law students and marginalized people.
Birckhead also disputes claims that the Center for Civil Rights is not an academic center due to its advocacy.
“The idea that the Center for Civil Rights is not an academic center because it engages in advocacy reveals a complete lack of understanding for what legal education is about,” she said. “We are training students to be advocates, and in order to do that, they learn through experiential learning.”
Birckhead said she hopes the Board of Governors will oppose the working group’s recommendations at its meeting on Thursday and Friday.
“At the very least, these threats by the working group of the Board of Governors can and will likely have a chilling effect,” she said. “People will be afraid to continue to teach and to publish and to use their email to engage in what are academic pursuits.”
Nichol said in an email Monday that he’s proud to be part of such a supportive law school faculty — and he particularly appreciated that Boger, the school’s dean, signed the statement.
“In this atmosphere, that’s a remarkable act of moral courage,” Nichol said.
UNC law faculty signees from left to right: David Ardia, Tamar Birckhead, Kaci Bishop, John Charles Boger, Laura Collins Britton, Lissa L. Broome, Alfred Brophy, Kenneth S. Broun, Patricia Bryan, Alexa Z. Chew, Andrew Chin, John M.Conley, Michael Corrado, John F. Coyle, Charles E. Daye, Maxine Eichner, Lewis Moore Everett, Barbara Fedders, Victor Flatt, Laura N. Gasaway, Deborah R.Gerhardt, Michael J. Gerhardt, S. Elizabeth Gibson, Thomas Lee Hazen, Jeffrey M. Hirsch, Donald T. Hornstein, Melissa B. Jacoby, Thomas A. Kelley, Joseph Kennedy, Catherine Y. Kim, Julie Kimbrough, Anne Klinefelter, Holning Lau, Jon McClanahan, Ruth Ann McKinney, Steven Melamut, Robert P. Mosteller, Eric Muller, Richard E. MyersII, Beth S. Posner, Gerald J.Postema, Alice Ratliff, Dana Remus, Richard Rosen and Kathryn A. Sabbeth.
Not pictured: Bernard A. Burk, Joan Krause, Arnold H. Loewy, William P. Marshall, Oscar J.Salinas, Maria Savasta-Kennedy,Richard S. Saver, Theodore M.Shaw, Craig T. Smith, Leslie Anne Street, Kathleen DeLaney Thomas, William J. Turnier, Sara B. Warf, Judith Welch Wegner, Mark Weidemaier, A. Mark Weisburd, Deborah M. Weissman, Erika Wilson and Janine M. Zanin.
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