Joe Knott, a board member who is proposing this policy, said anything beyond educating students is counterproductive to the university’s academic mission.
“...It’s always a struggle because there’s a pull toward mediocrity, and we have limited resources,” he said. “We are an academic institution, and to reach academic excellence requires a tremendous investment by the people of North Carolina and others.”
The UNC Center for Civil Rights, within the UNC School of Law, would be affected if the proposal passed. The Center provides legal counsel to poor and disadvantaged communities in North Carolina, researches discrimination and participates in litigation against the state and other entities.
Theodore Shaw, director of the Center for Civil Rights, said this litigation includes fighting for compensation for victims of the state’s decades-long sterilization program, quality education in school districts impacted by segregation or poverty, environmental justice and against the exclusion of poor communities from municipal services.
Carolina Student Legal Services would not be affected by this policy, as it is a 501(c)(3) separate from the UNC system, said director Fran Muse.
Shaw said it has been previously unclear to the board that the center receives no state funding.
“Although this policy purports to be addressing a concern with respect to centers throughout the state, it’s my belief that it’s a targeted effort, and the target is the Center for Civil Rights,” Shaw said.
The center is not a party in any litigation it pursues, but provides representation for people in need, he said.
BOG member Marty Kotis said there has been discussion among board members about the notion that it is illogical for one state entity to sue another.
“So imagine the city of Greensboro suing itself or something,” Kotis said. “It would use a lot of taxpayer money, so the goal is we are not wasting money and kind of suing ourselves, our close municipal allies.”
Shaw said he did not understand why the state is targeting centers for pursuing litigation against the state, as it is common in clinical programs run by law schools and among other government entities.
“Whether it’s the governor and the legislature in disagreement, whether it’s a town or a county in disagreement with the state or against one another, this is not uncommon,” he said. “So if that can happen in those instances, why is it that people are so troubled about it happening when it comes to vindication of civil rights?”
The current proposed policy does not specify litigation against North Carolina government agencies. It would limit litigation against any private or public entity.
But for BOG member Steven Long, the policy reinforces University goals.
If the government does not comply with the law, the University’s role is not to sue the state but to play an advisory role in informing the government of its error, he said.
“Filing legal actions against the State or city and county governments is far outside the primarily academic purpose of UNC centers,” Long said in a memo to the BOG Committee on Educational Planning, Policies and Programs.
Long said the lack of oversight for university clinics leads to prolonged litigation, and that centers are not the best way to educate law students. Long said internships and law school clinics, which combine class training and real-world experience, are the best way to provide litigation experience.
Law schools exist to train lawyers, as there are enough practicing attorneys who can partake in litigation, Knott said.
“We are training people to get things done for the rest of their lives, and we don’t need to shortchange the educational process and thus cripple those people forever in order to get short-term gain,” Knott said. “It’s like eating your seed corn, if you will.”
Shaw said he is not sure where the line is drawn between UNC centers and clinical programs, as training the next generation of civil rights lawyers is part of the mission of the Center for Civil Rights. Limiting the ways law students can receive training could harm the reputation of UNC schools, he said.
Shaw said all of the Center’s work, whether it be legal advice, research or litigation, is interrelated.
“I think there ought to be a corner of the state which represented the interests or at least is aligned with the interests of these poor black and brown citizens who are seeking equal treatment and the center does that,” Shaw said. “And I would hope the state would be proud of that work, even if sometimes it means that the state is at odds with one of its units.”