Education

UNC reputation at risk with proposed ban on civil rights legal work, faculty say

Protesters stand outside The Center for Leadership Development in support of the UNC Civil Rights Center before a committee debate determining the center’s future on Aug. 1 in Chapel Hill.
Protesters stand outside The Center for Leadership Development in support of the UNC Civil Rights Center before a committee debate determining the center’s future on Aug. 1 in Chapel Hill. gturner@heraldsun.com

Faculty leaders have passed a resolution urging the UNC Board of Governors to vote against a proposed ban on legal work by the UNC Center for Civil Rights.

The Faculty Executive Committee at UNC-Chapel Hill held a special meeting Thursday to voice its opposition to the controversial proposal scheduled for a board vote next month.

“The proposed policy makes it harder for campuses within the system to pursue their mission, places arbitrary and unjustified constraints on how we train our students, harms our university’s reputation, threatens our accreditation, and complicates the work of Centers and Institutes in ways that cannot be foreseen,” the committee said in a document posted online.

The proposed prohibition on the center’s legal powers passed a UNC system board committee Aug. 1 and is set for a final vote Sept. 8. UNC board members who support the ban say it’s improper and outside UNC’s mission to engage in legal action against other government entities such as school districts and county boards. Critics of the ban say it would harm UNC students’ legal education, hurt the university’s academic reputation and effectively shut down the center, which was founded by noted civil rights attorney Julius Chambers.

The Faculty Executive Committee is made up of 14 elected faculty members. It is a smaller group within the main faculty governance body, the Faculty Council. The panel’s resolution echoes concerns of UNC law school Dean Martin Brinkley and UNC Chancellor Carol Folt.

A two-page rationale posted with the resolution explained that the civil rights center is no different from many other campus centers and institutes in which faculty provide professional services such as health care, by UNC doctors and nurses, and casework by faculty members in the School of Social Work.

“In all of these engagements, faculty members serve the public, enhance the education and training of students, and carry out research to create new knowledge,” the document said. “The pending proposal singles out legal education and the delivery of legal services for a unique and debilitating disqualification.”

The center is a “nationally renowned institution committed to protecting the constitutional rights of American citizens, particularly people of color, the poor, and other potential beneficiaries of civil rights advances,” the faculty committee wrote.

Faculty said they, not the board, should oversee curriculum and student training. And they said the policy could have unintended consequences for other centers, which could then be barred from hiring attorneys, using lawyers for contracts or seeking legal guidance on patent issues, for example.

If the board’s proposal passes, the faculty wrote, it would “needlessly injure” the university, the law school, the center’s clients and the legacy of Chambers.

“The change in policy would hurt our reputation and the people of the state we are mission-bound to serve,” they wrote.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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