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Questions Raised as UNC Board of Governors Considers Vote to Shut Down Academic Centers [UPDATED]

Today, the University of North Carolina (UNC) System’s Board of Governors could vote to shut down three academic centers housed at institutions within the system: the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity at the University of North Carolina School of Law; the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at North Carolina Central University; and the Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University. The vote follows recommendations made last week by a Board of Governors committee to close the three centers following a review of the 240 centers contained within the UNC system.

The committee’s recommendations have sparked strong reactions in the week since their issuance. Conservative observers have hailed the recommendations as an overdue corrective against political advocacy masquerading as higher education. Some have previously criticized the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity, in part because its director, UNC Law professor Gene Nichol, has sharply condemned the state’s Republican legislators in newspaper columns. (Board of Governors members are elected by the state legislature. The New York Times reports that 29 of the 32 members have been appointed since 2010, when Republicans became a majority in both chambers of the state’s legislature.)

Others, including the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), regard the committee’s recommendations as a viewpoint-based intrusion into academic decisionmaking. In a statement released earlier this week, the AAUP argued that “externally funded centers” like the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity “must be free to sponsor curricular and extracurricular programs and provide services to the public across the broadest range of perspectives and approaches.” (The Associated Press reports that “the poverty center’s $107,000 budget comes from corporate and foundation grants and private gifts, according to the law school.”)

UNC faculty and staff have also urged the Board of Governors to reject the committee’s recommendations. In a statement, over 100 members of the UNC faculty expressed particular concern about the appearance of retaliation against Professor Nichol for his political commentary, noting that “[p]unishing 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 chancellor and provost of UNC-Chapel Hill have criticized the recommendation as well, stating that they are “very disappointed.”

For their part, members of the committee maintain that their recommendations are not motivated by political considerations. Jim Holmes, the Board of Governors member who led the committee, told The New York Times that the centers were instead targeted in part for failing to perform sufficient work and insisted, “This is not a political issue or a political report.”

FIRE has monitored these developments closely.

In our 15 years protecting campus rights, we have repeatedly defended freedom of expression and academic freedom from viewpoint-based legislative interference. For example, in 2009, FIRE wrote to Oklahoma state legislators, asking them to stand up for freedom of expression on campus after the legislature launched an investigation into a campus visit and speech at the University of Oklahoma by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In 2010, FIRE wrote to former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, criticizing his decision to launch an investigation of the research of climate scientist and former University of Virginia professor Dr. Michael Mann. In 2013, FIRE twice wrote to Governor Scott Walker urging him to veto an unconstitutional provision in a state budget proposal that would have prevented University of Wisconsin faculty “from doing any work related to” the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization. (Governor Walker ultimately did so.) In 2013 and 2014, FIRE criticized the Tennessee state legislature for seeking ways to cut funding to a student-run “Sex Week,” including introducing legislation that would cut all funding for outside speakers. Also last year, FIRE asked South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to reject legislative efforts to punish two state universities for including LGBT-themed readings in their programming. More examples of our work to defend faculty and student speech from viewpoint-based legislative punishment or censorship are available in our case archive and here on our blog.

In this current controversy, FIRE is troubled by the possibility that the committee’s recommendations are motivated by political concerns. Beyond detailing general parameters for phases of review, the committee’s report does not provide specific reasoning in support of the three recommended closures. We note that in forming the committee, the Board of Governors was responding to the legislature’s request (see section 11.1(a)) that it work to identify up to 15 million dollars in funding reductions for the 240 centers housed by state institutions of higher education, with the savings to be reinvested elsewhere within the system. But because the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity is privately funded, the committee’s recommendation for its closure does not appear to answer that element of the legislature’s charge. Likewise, it seems significant that of the 240 centers reviewed, the three identified by the committee for elimination work in fields marked by partisan rancor.

If the committee concluded that the three centers targeted for elimination failed to justify their existence because of a lack of productivity or a failure to provide the educational outcomes sought, it should provide a detailed discussion of how it arrived at that conclusion. Otherwise, it is difficult to dismiss the apparent message sent to the faculty and students working with or for centers that engage the world beyond campus: Voicing viewpoints unpopular with the legislature may well result in silencing.

Academic freedom requires protecting the research, scholarship, teaching, and expression of public university faculty from legislative hostility to particular viewpoints. As FIRE reminded former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz in a 2013 open letter precipitated by a funding controversy, “If an institution of higher education is to serve as a marketplace of ideas and a haven of free thought, those who teach and study there must not be made to live in fear that arguing for, espousing, or simply coming to believe an idea will lead to political threats either to their positions in the academic community or to the institution as a whole.”

By appearing to selectively target academic centers based on the fields in which they work and the viewpoints of their leadership, the committee has introduced a chill which we fear may be felt systemwide. In considering today’s vote, FIRE reminds the Board of Governors of the wisdom of Justice Felix Frankfurter’s concurring opinion in Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234 (1957):

Progress in the natural sciences is not remotely confined to findings made in the laboratory. Insights into the mysteries of nature are born of hypothesis and speculation. The more so is this true in the pursuit of understanding in the groping endeavors of what are called the social sciences, the concern of which is man and society. The problems that are the respective preoccupations of anthropology, economics, law, psychology, sociology and related areas of scholarship are merely departmentalized dealing, by way of manageable division of analysis, with interpenetrating aspects of holistic perplexities. For society’s good—if understanding be an essential need of society—inquiries into these problems, speculations about them, stimulation in others of reflection upon them, must be left as unfettered as possible. Political power must abstain from intrusion into this activity of freedom, pursued in the interest of wise government and the people’s well-being, except for reasons that are exigent and obviously compelling.

These pages need not be burdened with proof, based on the testimony of a cloud of impressive witnesses, of the dependence of a free society on free universities. This means the exclusion of governmental intervention in the intellectual life of a university. It matters little whether such intervention occurs avowedly or through action that inevitably tends to check the ardor and fearlessness of scholars, qualities at once so fragile and so indispensable for fruitful academic labor.

UPDATE: The Associated Press reports that the Board of Governors has voted to close the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity.

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