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Sixty law professors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have issued a statement objecting to plans by the University of North Carolina System board to close the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, which is led by a UNC law professor. A committee vote last week to close the center outraged many faculty and others, who said that there was no financial reason to close a center that does not receive state funds, and who said that they believed it was being closed because of board anger at Gene Nichol, the head of the center, for criticizing conservative policies. (Board officials have denied this.)

The statement from the law professors says that the center is much needed. "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, as well as others that many would prefer to ignore. These include that 25 percent of all children live in poverty, including 40 percent of children of color."

Further, the statement says that attacking the center because of political disagreements with its leader sets a dangerous course for higher education. "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, the Poverty Center’s director, we decry it," the statement says. "Professor Nichol has been a prominent and thoughtful critic of proposals that exacerbate inequality and drive low-income people into ever deeper destitution. 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. Such active suppression of free speech contravenes the very lifeblood of a public university, where dialogue and dissent must be permitted to survive and indeed to flourish if scholars are to fulfill their missions of contributing to the collective knowledge of the commonwealth."