UNC Board Committee Votes Against Center for Civil Rights


Rejecting the recommendations of its Chapel Hill campus chancellor, over 600 law school faculty and administrators, and numerous North Carolinians demonstrating outside, the Educational Planning, Policies and Programs Committee of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Board of Governors voted 5-1, with one abstention, August 1 to bar the UNC Chapel Hill law school’s Center for Civil Rights from taking on new clients, the Raleigh News & Observer reports.  The vote set the stage for a final vote by the full board next month.  The measure nominally applies to centers and institutes throughout the UNC system, but the Center for Civil Rights is the only one that now engages in litigation.

“It’s obvious that the chancellor and others throughout the system are not supportive of this,” said board member Jim Holmes, who in 2015 praised the work of the Center for Civil Rights but today voted to bar it from engaging in litigation. “It’s really important that this board own that this is our direction.”

Board member Marty Kotis, a real-estate developer and UNC-CH alumnus, suggested lawsuits are usually a waste of money and that people should look for other ways to resolve conflicts. Putting the center out of the business of representing clients is “simply about reducing the amount of litigation out there,” he said.

Board member Joe Knott, a lawyer and UNC-CH alumnus who ran unsuccessfully for North Carollina attorney general in 2004, questioned the clinical training promoted by the American Bar Association and most law schools.  “If we’re going to have a law school, which we must and I’m all in favor of it … it needs to stick to its knitting,” Knott said.  “A law school is one thing; a law firm is another thing,” he continued. “Law firms have clients. Schools have students. Schools and students do one thing. Law firms and clients do another.”

Law school centers should exist only to help students “evaluate and study and discuss and debate cases that have been decided” so they might “come to a deeper understanding of the philosophical roots behind each case and the cultural implications they have,” Knott said.  This strictly academic understanding of legal education has been largely abandoned in most of the country’s law schools, however, as bar associations, law firms, and government legal officers have urged the schools to offer more extensive practical legal training and experience alongside the study of past cases.

The opposing vote on the committee came from its chairwoman, Anna Spangler Nelson, a Wellesley and Harvard alumna who’s the daughter of former UNC system President C.D. Spangler.   She said any problems with the Center  “would ideally be handled at the campus level,” and agreed with Chancellor Carol Folt that the debate “is posing a reputational risk to the university which transcends the specific circumstances here.”  She said the campus can find “a practical middle path,” perhaps by restyling the center as a clinic more firmly rooted in the law school that can continue to engage in legal work.

Board member Steve Long, who initiated the move against the Center, has made much of the distinction between a center and a clinic, arguing that the latter are less politically engaged.  But the Center’s managing director, Mark Dorosin, and UNC leaders called the distinction basically semantic.  “Just wait and see,” Dorosin said. “When a case upsets some friend of the Board of Governors, or someone ideologically, then clinics will be the next people on the chopping block.”

The president of the UNC Faculty Assembly, mathematician Gabriel Lugo, told the committee that there’s little difference between the law school’s training strategy and the practices of medical schools “that require clinical training” or business schools “where it is preferable for the students to have participated in one or more internships” before receiving their degrees. The dispute risks portraying UNC’s campuses to their peers and the national media as being not just on the wrong side of civil rights, but “on the wrong side of student success,” Lugo said.

In May AAUP President Rudy Fichtenbaum issued a statement calling on the Board of Governors “to cease interfering with the educational mission of the center and allow it to continue its work, which is consistent with the mission of the University of North Carolina and serves the common good.”  Yesterday Fichtenbaum and Michael DeCesare, Chair of AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance, published an op-ed in the News & Observer arguing that the “UNC Board should remember UNC’s mission.”

Should the full board, as expected, confirm today’s committee vote it would be the latest example of politically motivated boards of trustees inappropriately inserting themselves into decisions best left to the faculty and campus administrators.  (For two examples see AAUP reports on the University of Missouri and the University of Virginia.)  As the AAUP’s 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, formulated jointly with the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, emphasizes, “The governing board of an institution of higher education, while maintaining a general overview, entrusts the conduct of administration to the administrative officers—the president and the deans—and the conduct of teaching and research to the faculty. The board should undertake appropriate self-limitation.”  Sadly, it seems that members of the UNC board wish to ignore this sage advice.  They do so at the peril of the institution they purport to lead.

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