I, along with 45 of my faculty colleagues at the UNC School of Law, oppose the recent recommendation of a working group of the UNC Board of Governors to close the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. We support the advocacy work of the Center for Civil Rights in the face of a suggestion that it narrow its activities. Both of these centers are housed at the UNC School of Law.
Closing the poverty center would 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 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 North Carolina’s pressing need for research and education on 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. Nearly 25 percent of our children live in poverty, including 40 percent of children of color.
Similarly, the Center for Civil Rights has long been an important institution, training the next generation of lawyers on 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.
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Prohibiting the Center for Civil Rights from suing the state or municipalities 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, we decry it. Nichol has been a prominent and thoughtful critic of proposals that exacerbate inequality and drive low-income people into deeper destitution. Punishing a professor for expressing his views – views always carefully supported by facts and rigorous analysis – chills the free speech 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 if scholars are to fulfill their missions of contributing to the collective knowledge of the commonwealth. Closing the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity and potentially curtailing the activities of the Center for Civil Rights will also deprive UNC law students and young lawyers of important opportunities to learn to think critically, write analytically and hone arguments under the tutelage of experienced litigators and scholars.
It is wrong to take these opportunities away – particularly when neither center receives state tax dollars.
We implore the board to reject the committee’s recommendations.
Associate Professor of Law, Director of Clinical Programs, UNC, Chapel Hill
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