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Civil Rights Center's fate in the hands of BOG's Friday vote

Rev. Campbell poses for a portrait in front of the Rogers Road Community Center.

Rev. Campbell poses for a portrait in front of the Rogers Road Community Center.

Reverend Robert Campbell was determined to find a way to protect his neighbors on Rogers Road.

In 1972, the Town of Chapel Hill and Carrboro had promised paved roads and street lamps in exchange for permission to build a landfill in the residential area separating Eubanks and Homestead Roads. 

Thirty-five years later, all the community had to show for it was contaminated water and a permeating odor.

So he set out to fix it. 

In 2007, he attended the North Carolina Environmental Justice Summit, where he met a group of interns from the UNC Center for Civil Rights, a center within UNC’s law school which engages in research, advocacy and the training of civil rights lawyers.

Those students introduced him to policies and laws that helped him better understand how he could support his community, he said.

Ten years later, Campbell’s community has paved roads, cleaner water and the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association Community Center, which opened in December 2014.

Without the Center for Civil Rights Center's help, Campbell said their community would look a lot different. 

“It was very instrumental in helping us to articulate what needed to be said, and how it needed to be said,” he said.

Now, the fate of the Center’s ability to litigate — which includes providing legal counsel, like in Campbell’s case — is in the hands of the UNC Board of Governors, as they prepare for Friday's vote on whether or not to ban academic centers within the UNC system from litigating.

‘It is a tragic betrayal’

Though Mark Dorosin, managing attorney at the Center, might lose his job on Friday, he is more worried about what’s at stake if the center closes, and what will happen to the communities who would no longer be able to call the Center for Civil Rights an ally.

The Center’s work, Dorosin said, revolves around community-based advocacy that fights the continued impacts of race discrimination in the state.

Dorosin thinks that passing the legislation Friday would send a dangerous message to the perpetrators of discrimination.

“I think the policy is exclusively aimed at the Center for Civil Rights,” Dorosin said. “I think the people that are leading this attack and advocacy ban are angry about the nature of the work that we do.”

Dorosin said that because the ban would prevent the Center from acting as a legal counsel in any way, he’s unsure of how the center could continue to exist without its power to litigate. 

Martin H. Brinkley, dean of the UNC School of Law, said closing the Center will not only affect the law school — it will damage the entire University. 

“If the UNC Center for Civil Rights no longer has litigation as an option, it will tarnish the reputation of the law school for what it can do for its students and for the people and communities of North Carolina who have no other options for representation,” Brinkley said. “It will also tarnish the reputation of the University as a whole.”

Ted Shaw, director of the Center, said the proposed policy would hurt the reputation of not just the law school but the University. 

“I think that if they do this — well I don’t think, I know — it is a tragic betrayal of a commitment that the state and the Board of Governors made, and that the University has engaged in to train a new generation of civil rights lawyers, and at the same time providing legal representation to those who experience race discrimination," Shaw said. 

“This is going to hurt the law school, its reputation and the reputation of the University.”

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The proposal

In March, board member Steve Long first presented the policy to prohibit academic centers from engaging in litigation to the Educational Planning, Policies and Programs committee. The proposed policy would prohibit any center or institute within the UNC system from engaging in litigation, with an amendment to exclude law clinics. 

According to a memo written by Long, his reasons for seeking to ban academic centers from litigating is because academic centers are not structured to operate as litigation centers, and permitting centers to engage in litigation creates risk that the center will lose sight of UNC’s educational mission.

Supporters of the Center say the ban feels pointed, because the Center, which often provides pro bono legal services to minorities and underserved populations, is the only academic center at UNC that litigates. 

Though the committee eventually passed the policy proposal in a 5-1 vote on Aug. 1 with one abstention, Anna Nelson, chair of the committee and the lone dissenter, said there were a number of questions from committee members about how this would affect the Center throughout the deliberating process. 

Specifically, the committee questioned Long about similar centers at Universities around the country, and if they also engage in litigation. 

In a July 8 memorandum, Long addressed these concerns by emphasizing the difference between law centers and law clinics. Specifically, Long referenced his conversation with the interim director of a similar center at the University of Wisconsin Law School, the main difference being that their center does not litigate — rather, all litigation is done by students and supervising faculty as a part of a separate law clinic. 

“Permitting academic centers to engage in litigation opens the door to center personnel using the litigation to further their personal agendas,” Long says in the memo. 

Instead, if the center operated as a clinic, no full-time attorneys would litigate; it would be left up to students, with faculty oversight. 

The idea of transforming the Center into a clinic was one of the several points the committee asked Chancellor Folt to consider. In a five-page letter to Nelson, Folt said though a clinic could be established, the University does not currently have the funding, staff or space for this effort.

“Although the new policy does not mention the Center for Civil Rights directly, it is important to note that I was instructed by the committee specifically to determine effects of the proposed change on the Center and our Law School,” Folt said in the letter. “We have no other entity at UNC-Chapel Hill to which the new policy could apply.”

The proposed policy will change how the Center operates, and in its current structure, banning the center from litigating could foreseeably result in its closure, Folt said in the letter.

“In closing, if the committee moves forward with the new proposed policy, we risk significant damage to the reputation of the University and the Law School, as well as uncertainty as to whether we can even create a new clinic for civil rights with no resources,” Folt said in the letter.

'What about other communities?'

In his time working with interns from the Center, Campbell said he experienced a mutually beneficial relationship.

“The Rogers Road Community became another one of the classrooms that opened up the intellect for young students at UNC who wanted to go into law,” Campbell said. “It was an opportunity to apply something that would gain them knowledge but also benefit local communities.”

Through working with center, he feels prepared for the Rogers Road community to tackle their future legal battles.

Yet, if the Center is unable to litigate, he worries about the legal battles other communities might face.

“We have learned how to communicate and talk to the people of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, North Carolina and the federal government,” Campbell said. 

“We know how to do these things — but what about other communities?”