A flawed perception drives a budget cut at UNC’s law school

Despite a strong economy, the state legislature passed a budget last month cutting funding for the University of North Carolina School of Law by $500,000. And after closing the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity two years ago, the UNC Board of Governors is currently considering a measure that would effectively eliminate the Civil Rights Center – a law-school center that brings suit on behalf of minorities against the state and local governments for civil rights violations – by prohibiting it from litigating.

It is hard not to see these actions as state officials expressing antipathy toward the law school. One reason often given for this animus is the belief that the School of Law employs only liberal faculty who hold views contrary to those held by the Republican legislature and Board of Governors. This perception is unsurprising given that much of the public exposure of the School of Law has been through the work of the Civil Rights Center and the newspaper columns written by my colleagues that criticize state Republicans and their policies.

But the perception is inaccurate. The School of Law is a place of rich intellectual and ideological diversity. The faculty members research in a wide variety of areas ranging from corporate transactions to jurisprudence, and they employ a wide range of methodologies including history, philosophy and economics. Some members of the faculty are liberal. But others are more conservative. I am a member of the Federalist Society, clerked for two federal judges appointed by Republican presidents and worked in the Department of Justice under George W. Bush. I tend to agree with Justice Thomas more than with Justice Sotomayor. I am not the most conservative member of the faculty. And my colleagues who do not self-identify as politically conservative have worked tirelessly to support causes that are conservative — such as the work of my colleague Mary-Rose Papandrea, a First Amendment expert whose work supports the rights of conservative students’ speech.

The School of Law has not played favorites among any of us. It has supported my columns criticizing the suits under the Emoluments Clause against President Trump as much as it has supported other faculty members’ scholarship challenging his immigration ban.

This intellectual and ideological diversity among the faculty is a desirable characteristic. The discussion among faculty with different values and approaches improves our research and scholarship. For example, Gene Nichol and I may not share the same political views, but my respect for him is unlimited. I always ask for his opinions on my work and take his comments very seriously.

The intellectual and ideological diversity is not limited to the faculty. Scholars with a wide variety of views regularly come to the School of Law to give lectures. Last year’s Murphy Lecture, one of the signature events at the School of Law, was delivered by Judge Reena Raggi, a George W. Bush appointee, who criticized the trend of suppressing conservative speech at universities.

The student body is also broadly diverse. That diversity can be seen not only in the student organizations, which range from the student chapter of the ACLU to the student chapter of the Federalist Society, but also in the jobs our students go on to fill. Some of our students clerk for liberal judges; others clerk for conservative ones. Some join plaintiffs firms; others work for private firms that represent big business. Some become prosecutors while others become public defenders.

This diversity among students is critical to their learning law. It gives students an opportunity to refine their own views by grappling with arguments that conflict with their assumptions, and it teaches students how to fashion arguments with which they disagree – an invaluable skill for an attorney.

The cut in funding hurts the ability of the law school to maintain this intellectual atmosphere. It is not simply that the cut takes away resources that help run the School of Law. It is also that the cut inevitably will pressure the School of Law to make decisions with an eye toward pleasing state officials instead of improving the law school. And it will make us all hesitate before expressing or even teaching positions that conflict with the views of the government. Elections can change the political makeup of the state legislature. But they should not affect the tradition of excellence in our flagship law school.

Andy Hessick is a law professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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