The University of North Carolina's Board of Governors today used its residual statutory powers to order the discontinuance of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, which has been housed within the UNC School of Law since 2005. In doing so, great damage has been done to two of the state's finest and most precious assets, the university's freedom and its academic reputation.
The outcome is a dismaying decision by the BOG. Its special working group, despite an ostensibly thorough investigation, never identified any serious reason to justify this action. Closing the Poverty Center to achieve the BOG's initial objective -- finding $15 million in savings that could be redirected to other University objectives -- makes no sense at all. The Poverty Center has not received State taxpayer funds since 2009 and takes up no campus building space at all. Other purported reasons -- that "the Center did not provide a wide-range of alternatives for addressing poverty," that UNC-Chapel Hill "is working on other, multi-disciplinary poverty efforts," and that "there is insufficient explanation of how the activities of this center meet the educational mission of the School of Law" -- have no basis in the record before the BOG.
The Poverty Center has a clear and powerful educational mission within the School of Law. It has provided to hundreds of law and graduate students meaningful research, analytic and writing experiences that have led to important published reports on poverty in North Carolina. It has introduced them to one of North Carolina's most serious public policy issues. It has brought students into moving, first-hand encounters with lower-income and non-white communities and families, struggling to obtain shelter, adequate health care, a sound basic education for their children, and meaningful employment. The idea that the presence of other poverty work is underway at Chapel Hill makes this Center unnecessary states no reason why this effort should be shuttered, unless other efforts have been so very successful (plainly not) that no additional work to combat poverty is needed.
The Poverty center has also produced a trove of academic writings, including two books, nearly a dozen law review articles, and a host of empirical reports, which examine the challenges of poverty, especially in North Carolina, from a variety of perspectives. Its scholarly and academic contributions have been commendable.
It is evident, then, that the BOG closed this center, neither because it has failed to serve an educational purpose nor for any failure to carry out a serious scholarly agenda, nor because the center is redundant. Instead, the BOG has surely closed this center because it does not approve the writings and speeches of Professor Gene Nichol, who speaks and writes on poverty in North Carolina with unsparing candor. That motive contravenes core principles of academic free speech and inquiry. It threatens First Amendment values. It is a sad day for the great University of North Carolina, witnessing as its current Board of Governors yields to pressures that besmirch the University of North Carolina's wonderful reputation, justly earned over the past century, for forthrightly exploring societal issues of greatest importance to the state, the region and the nation.
The motto of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has long been "Lux et Libertas" -- Light and Liberty. The BOG decision today acts to darken the light that shines forth from Chapel Hill. It would diminish the liberty of those who work and study there. I hope that voices of moderation and reason will act soon to restore the reputation of this great university and more faithfully serve the people of the State of North Carolina.
Jack Boger, Dean
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law
-February 27, 2015