University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: A transformative gift from the Kerr family will permanently support civil rights work at the UNC School of Law

While recent events across the country have renewed Americans’ awareness of racial inequality, James Yancey “Jim” Kerr II J.D. ’92, and his wife, Frances King Kerr ’89, discussed aligning their support of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with their desire to see progress on issues of social and racial equity.

Jim Kerr’s UNC School of Law classmate Martin H. Brinkley J.D. ’92, dean and William Rand Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law, asked the Kerrs to consider endowing and stabilizing the critical civil rights work Carolina Law has been doing for decades to bring change to people and communities in North Carolina.

“Carolina has always hit the most important problems of our time head-on,” Jim Kerr said. “We study cancer at the medical school. We study the financial crisis at the business school. Why shouldn’t the law school take on challenges that have torn our country and communities apart? I think our legal institutions are our best hope for the future. Wrestling with civil rights issues, thoughtfully and critically, at the law school is part of that great hope.”

The Kerrs have made a $2 million commitment to Carolina Law to create The Kerr Family Civil Rights Endowment Fund. The endowment fund will support teaching, research, experiential learning, and student engagement in the area of civil rights. Pervasive discrimination, inequality, and marginalization based on race, color, disability, gender, sex or national origin will be the focus of the fund going forward.

“The Kerr Family Civil Rights Endowment Fund provides generous support of important work that needs to be done in the law school, at the University and in our nation,” said Brinkley. “Because of their passionate belief in the importance of equitable communities in their home state, I am grateful that Jim and Frances Kerr chose to support our students, faculty and staff with this permanent source of funding.”

The Kerr Family Civil Rights Endowment Fund will advance teaching, research, experiential learning, and student engagement at Carolina Law in many ways – through the civil rights center, civil rights clinic, student scholarships, externships and pro bono projects.

Through research and community-based outreach, the civil rights center seeks to lift human lives above barriers of race, class, and place. The center recently hosted a symposium discussing the future of the Equal Protection Clause that included former United States Attorney General Eric Holder as a keynote speaker. The law school’s civil rights clinic allows students to work on non-litigation-based advocacy projects that involve employment discrimination, fair housing, racial disparities in education, enforcement of constitutional rights for incarcerated individuals and collateral consequences of criminal convictions.

“I’m really grateful that the Kerr family is willing to invest in supporting civil rights work,” said Erika Wilson, associate professor of law, Wade Edwards Distinguished Scholar, Thomas Willis Lambeth Distinguished Chair in Public Policy, and director of the Carolina Law clinical programs. “It will have a deep impact by helping us bring more resources to bear in terms of people power to do this work. I hope it also serves as a signaling effect that this work is important, it’s legitimate and it needs to be done in the state.”

The Kerrs hope this gift motivates others to invest in the school’s work to fuel positive change for the public good. “I hope the gift can help the University and the law school in training its students to confront the problems that we see throughout the country today,” Frances Kerr said. “Secondly, I hope that it inspires others to contribute to the school so that students have real-world experience dealing with the most critical civil rights issues of our time.”

Frances Kerr was the first in her family to attend Carolina, where she studied communications. She is a member of the Carolina Women’s Leadership Council.

Jim Kerr grew up in Goldsboro, where many prominent community leaders were Carolina Law alumni who served as inspiration for him to pursue law school. After a lengthy legal career in North Carolina and as a member of the North Carolina Utilities Commission, he now serves as executive vice president, chief legal officer and chief compliance officer for Atlanta-based Southern Company, a gas and electric utility holding company.

The Kerr family’s deep involvement in the political landscape of North Carolina goes back generations. Kerr acknowledges his family’s history includes periods in which there was widespread racial injustice in the state.

Kerr emphasizes that creating this endowed fund represents an opportunity to help train a generation of lawyers who will build more equitable and inclusive communities throughout North Carolina. A longtime Tar Heel fan, Kerr quoted former Carolina Head Men’s Basketball Coach Dean Smith when reflecting on why he and Frances made this gift.

“Coach Smith said one time, ‘You should never be proud of doing the right thing, you should just do it,’” he said. “I don’t feel proud, but I’d say we’re very grateful to have had the opportunity to add this as a chapter in our family’s story of trying to be of service to others. More importantly, we hope that it does some good for some young students and for the people of North Carolina.”

The Kerrs’ gift counts toward the Campaign for Carolina, the most ambitious public University fundraising campaign in the Southeast and in University history. The campaign launched in October 2017 with a goal to raise $4.25 billion by December 2022.

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