by Jane Stancill, News and Observer, February 24, 2015.
The American Association of University Professors has joined a growing chorus calling on the UNC Board of Governors to reject closing a center for the study of poverty at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The national association weighed in Tuesday, saying that a recommendation to abolish the UNC law school’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity is troubling.
In a statement, the association said: “To be true to their mission, public universities must serve all members of our society, the poor as well as the privileged. Externally funded centers must be free to sponsor curricular and extracurricular programs and provide services to the public across the broadest range of perspectives and approaches.”
The association joined UNC law Dean Jack Boger, who last week issued a letter defending the center, and 64 professors at the law school who signed a statement in support of the poverty center and the school’s Center for Civil Rights, which was recommended for further review.
Discontinuing the poverty center, the professors’ statement said, 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.”
The law professors also put forth a vigorous defense of the center’s director, Gene Nichol, a former law dean who has been an outspoken critic of policies of the state’s Republican governor and legislative leaders. His columns for The News & Observer’s opinion page have drawn negative attention by some political leaders and UNC board members, according to emails obtained and published last year by the newspaper.
“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 professors’ statement said.
The UNC system board could vote Friday on the proposed shutdown of the poverty center and two others – East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity and N.C. Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change.
Last week, after months of review, a board working group recommended discontinuation of the three centers, along with further study of 13 others. The process began last fall with the review of 240 centers and institutes across the system, following a directive to the board by the legislature to cut $15 million from these entities.
The panel’s chairman, Jim Holmes, said last week that the proposal to discontinue the poverty center had nothing to do with Nichol’s politics or public speech. He said the center did not seem to fit with the university’s mission.
‘In the best interest’
In response to a request for an interview about the recommendations, board Chairman John Fennebresque wrote in an email Friday: “All 32 members of this Board take very seriously our responsibility to do what we believe is in the best interest of the University system and its students, staff and faculty, as well as the people of North Carolina.”
The proposal has prompted concern among faculty outside the law school.
On Monday, leaders of the general faculty in Chapel Hill passed a resolution pointing out that under current policy, individual campus trustee boards have authority over centers and institutes – not the system governing board. And it backed the privately funded poverty center’s work as “consistent with UNC-Chapel Hill’s long and proud tradition of service to the state’s citizens.”
The UNC system’s Faculty Assembly – a systemwide faculty advisory body – has also weighed in, calling on the Board of Governors to adhere to the current policy in which centers are overseen only by their campuses. A proposed policy revision would give the UNC system governing board, or the UNC system president, the power to discontinue academic centers.
Tamar Birckhead, UNC law professor, called the move “nothing short of a political power grab.”
Jordan Kurland, associate general secretary of the AAUP, said the organization began hearing from faculty in North Carolina last month, when the board forced the early retirement of UNC President Tom Ross, who will leave next year. The group also got involved in 2012 when the University of Virginia board acted to fire the president there.
“When something awful happens, we don’t wait for an invitation,” Kurland said of the group. “We’re like a first responder or a fire department.”
The group cited historic threats to academic freedom, including a 1968 case at the University of Mississippi, in which a government grant was used to set up a legal services project to represent the poor.
‘Given this history’
The AAUP referenced North Carolina’s Speaker Ban Law of the 1960s, which, for a time, prohibited communist speakers at UNC. And it cited a 2002 debate over academic freedom, when UNC assigned a summer reading book about the Quran.
That incident also led the AAUP to give a national award to former UNC President Molly Broad for her role in defending academic freedom.
“Given this history in defense of academic freedom, we shall be greatly disappointed if the UNC board takes a position that is at odds with the position it took in 2002,” the AAUP’s statement Tuesday said.