In a 5-1 decision, the Board of Governors' Committee on Educational Planning, Policies and Programs voted on Tuesday to recommend a litigation ban against the UNC Center for Civil Rights.
This decision has been months in the making, despite protests from University and community members. It will go before the full body of the board for a final decision on Sept. 8.
Chancellor Carol Folt opened the meeting with a speech about the center and its role in UNC’s Law School.
“The Center for Civil Rights is the point of training for litigation at our law school,” she said. “I think our report clearly shows that all schools have some sort of litigation training for their students. Since that takes place in the center, we would have no other way to train students in litigation.”
Folt said she and other administrators believed that the center is vital to the education of law students at UNC and that a litigation ban would remove it as a resource for students.
“The solution that has been most often brought forward is to create a clinic,” Folt said. “But that will take funding we don’t have, staff we don’t have and will need to go through our accrediting process, which will take quite some time.”
Speaking on behalf of herself and the University, Folt asked the committee to not recommend the ban.
“This new policy will force us to deal with a significant challenge and obstacle as we move forward,” she said.
Center Director Ted Shaw spoke after Folt and said the ban was an attack on the center. He referenced Steve Long, the board member who proposed the ban.
“I’ve come to think of him as a moving assassin, because his justifications continue to change over time,” Shaw said. “In spite of repeated statements to the contrary, I’m not going to bite my tongue. With all due respect, this is an ideological hit on the Center of Civil Rights. Everyone knows why we’re here.”
Shaw said the ban would take away the ability of him and other professors to educate students, as well as damage the reputation of one of its founders, Julius Chambers.
“The center’s mission is to train the next generations of civil rights lawyers and to advocate for poor and disadvantaged people,” he said. “Julius Chambers knew this, and it was for that reason that he created the center.”
Shaw and Folt both cited a statement signed by 600 deans and faculty personnel from law schools around the country that asked the BOG not to pass the ban when they spoke before the board.
Shaw said centers such as the one at UNC exist in almost every single major university in America and that this ban would be seriously deviating from the norm.
Long said he is in favor of the ban because he believes it will help UNC adhere more closely to its academic mission, and that the ban will not hurt the University’s reputation.
“(Faculty) will tell you it hurts their reputation, which is what faculty will always tell you when they don’t like something,” he said.
Long referenced a specific case the Center for Civil Rights assisted with against a county school board, in which he claimed the county was forced to use $500,000 from its textbook budget to defend itself in court.
Board member Walter Davenport challenged Long’s claim, raising the question of whether or not the center is responsible for the legal fees incurred by the people it litigates against.
“The law firm is taking the lead and the center is doing research to help the firm," Davenport said. "Isn’t it true then that if another firm has worked on this with or without the center the county would have spent the same amount of money?”
Shaw said that the center does assist lawyers who are already litigating through research, but there are also lawyers who work on behalf of the center to litigate themselves. He also said students work alongside these attorneys, which is how they gain litigation experience while still in school.
Board member Joe Knott voted in favor of the ban. He said he believes universities should teach instead of litigating.
“Stick to your knitting,” he said. “Law schools have students, law firms have clients.”
Anna Nelson, who serves as chairperson of the committee, was the one vote against the ban. She said the damage done to the university would be too great.
“Regardless of what side you stand on, there is something greater at risk — the University,” she said. “It would seem to me that this board's energies would be better spent elsewhere.”
The ban passed committee and will be voted on by the entire board on Sep. 8.
Student Body President Elizabeth Adkins released a statement opposing the ban ahead of the committee meeting, while Folt sent Nelson a five-page letter in favor of the center.
Adkins spoke at a protest outside of the meeting.
UNC-system president Margaret Spellings released a statement after the meeting.
"As a University, we are resolute in defending civil rights, facilitating opportunities for civil discourse and teaching students through service – and experiential – learning," she said. "We do this in service to the citizens of North Carolina and in honor and celebration of leaders who have gone before. And we want to make sure this important work continues at all of our institutions."
While today's recommendation will impact the final decision, supporters and detractors of the center will have to wait until Sep. 8 to find out its fate.
“This will betray but not diminish the legacy of Julius L. Chambers, one of the greatest North Carolinians,” Shaw said. “I hope that they do not do lasting damage to the university and the state.”