Closure of Poverty Center in North Carolina

By Edward J. Graham

The University of North Carolina board of governors voted in February to close the UNC School of Law’s Center on Poverty, Work, and Community, along with two other centers affiliated with the state’s public university system. The AAUP had urged the board to reject a recommendation to close the center.

The center was “reportedly seen by its opponents as less a center for teaching law students and for scholarship than an advocacy program for the economic and social betterment and the civil rights of the poor, the disabled, and persons of color,” an AAUP statement read. “To be true to their mission, public universities must serve all members of 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 AAUP’s statement drew comparisons between three past situations that related to the current case. The first involved the University of Mississippi Law School, which, as a result of political pressure, was compelled to separate itself from its legal services program in 1968. The second was the 1960s North Carolina Speaker Ban Law, which prohibited alleged communists or Fifth Amendment pleaders from speaking at public colleges and universities. In the third case, heavy political pressure and proposed punitive legislation followed the UNC faculty’s 2002 selection of a book on the Koran as a summer reading text for new first-year students. In the 2002 case, the board adopted a unanimous resolution in support of academic freedom.

Faced with threats of reduced funding, the board of governors ultimately voted to close the poverty center. “Given its 2002 action upholding academic freedom, it is sad to see the UNC board now bowing to political pressure to close the Poverty Center,” said AAUP associate general secretary Jordan Kurland.