Cutting the UNC law school budget is a clumsy attempt to quiet a critic

The notion no doubt stunned not just alumni or faculty of the University of North Carolina School of Law, but those who’ve always seen the school as a producer of many of North Carolina’s community and political leaders.

The state Senate proposes to cut 30 percent of the school’s state appropriation, or $4 million. Thirty percent would likely mean cuts in faculty and other programs. And this proposal comes at a time when the state’s finances are doing well and the usual law school appropriation would not put a hardship on other parts of the budget.

The proposed cut isn’t aimed at Martin Brinkley, the respected and affable dean who took over in 2015 after a successful career in corporate law. Brinkley is a North Carolinian who moves well among Republicans and Democrats and he’s most interested in preparing law students for careers.

Rather, the proposal seems to squarely target Gene Nichol, another unquestionably brilliant faculty member who once directed the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity within the law school. It was seen as a liberal crusade for the disadvantaged and was shut down by the UNC system’s Board of Governors, which is now in the hands of conservative Republicans. Nichol promptly started the N.C. Poverty Research Fund under the UNC Law Foundation.

Throughout his career, Nichol’s been a regular contributor to The News & Observer’s opinion pages, including a series on the poor in North Carolina. He does not bend to criticism or hide from it – he listens to it. A former college football player, Nichol is perfectly willing to hear his critics and respond without rancor. But he has been, to be sure, a tough critic of Republican public policy in North Carolina.

This action against the law school is clearly aimed at Nichol. That’s not responsible budgeting. It’s petty revenge politics, and at its worst, it’s a dangerous attempt to muffle free speech in a place where it should thrive. If anything, his outspokenness spurs more intelligent debate from the right as well as the left.

Every year, the UNC law school turns out men and women who go not just to corporate law firms but also to their hometowns to defend people in district court and ensure their rights. And they take on important issues of personal freedom as well; many serve in local elective offices, helping to formulate ordinances about everything from the rights of those who demonstrate for causes in which they believe to the placement of bicycle lanes.

The law school, in other words, has turned out generation after generation of North Carolina’s leaders from the courthouse to Congress. That mission is needed; it is noble.

Republican legislators have control of the UNC Board of Governors and the General Assembly. Some of them are products of the UNC law school. They have nothing to fear from a professor who speaks his mind.

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