Anna Nelson isn’t afraid to go against the grain.
With five votes in favor of a litigation ban on the UNC Center for Civil Rights, Nelson was the only member of the Board of Governors' Committee on Educational Planning, Policies and Programs to vote against the proposal on Aug. 1.
If passed, the litigation ban would stop law students at the Center for Civil Rights from representing clients who pursue civil rights cases in court. The full body of the BOG will vote on the proposal Friday.
Nelson, the chairperson of the Committee on Educational Planning, said her solitary vote was not based on the specific circumstances of the proposal, but rather with a bigger picture in mind.
“I feel it’s a risk to be having this conversation because it’s a larger issue of the university’s reputation being at stake,” she said. “We’re sending a message that risks miscommunicating our values.”
She said regardless of where she stands on the issue, she thinks the ban would be an overreach of the board.
“Ideally, matters such as this would be handled at a campus level,” she said. “I do not question the authority of the board to take action, but the appropriateness of the ban.”
A life in education
When Nelson joined the BOG, she was no stranger to the UNC system. As the daughter of billionaire and former UNC system President Dick Spangler, she grew up in the thick of the state’s education system.
“As I was growing up, both my parents were committed to service in schools,” she said. “They did everything from playground monitoring to serving on the school board. I saw their service as a part of everyday responsibility and their enthusiasm for education certainly had an impact on me.”
Nelson said her passion for public education blossomed first when she attended public school, and continued when her own children began their public education.
“I was bused for integration to West Charlotte High School, a formerly all-black high school,” she said. “So I know how important it is to our state that we provide quality education to all North Carolinians — no matter where they live.”
Hannah Gage, emeritus member of the BOG, said Nelson’s upbringing in the university system gives her a unique perspective on the board.
“Having said that, Anna Nelson is very much her own person,” she said. “She’s an independent thinker and makes up her own mind on every issue.”
Louis Bissette, chairperson of the BOG, said he didn’t know Nelson personally when she was appointed to the board by the N.C. General Assembly.
“But I knew of her father and all the things he had done for the university (system) in his lifetime,” he said. “So I was expecting a great deal from his daughter.”
Holding her ground
Gage said Nelson stands up for what she believes in — even when it's difficult.
“I’ve seen this time and time again from voting against tuition increases to voting against the board’s effort to prevent the UNC’s Civil Rights Center from litigating,” she said. “Anna has the courage to separate from the crowd and stand alone, which is rare. She has conviction.”
Bissette said Nelson attended every hearing and comment session regarding the proposed ban.
“This is of course an emotional issue for a lot of people on both sides,” he said. “After looking at all sides, she decided that the center should be able to continue litigation activities.”
Nelson’s dissident vote challenges past public criticism that board members are influenced by politicians in the General Assembly.
Since 2007 and before joining the board in 2015, Nelson and her family donated over $100,000 to political campaigns. But Nelson said despite her political activity, she doesn’t feel pressured to take particular positions on university issues.
“I try to keep all of the pressures in the proper balance and perspective,” she said.
Nelson said the litigation ban could potentially stop lawsuits against local and state governments, making it a politically charged proposal.
“By definition, civil rights are personal rights that are to be protected by the government,” she said. “So the political weight is certainly a consideration, but there are other considerations like the students and their ability to have practical educational experiences. The citizens who won’t have access to the center anymore will be affected. There are lots of players in this situation.”
Bissette said politics inevitably intertwine with many school boards, and members on boards such as the BOG are almost always politically active.
“I would say our members are influenced by their political beliefs whether they be Democrats or Republicans,” he said. “This has been taking place for a hundred years and it’s still taking place.”
It’s unclear whether politically active BOG members are directly impacted by the legislature or whether they simply are ideologically in line with their political party’s views. Either way, Nelson said her political views don’t affect her decisions about what’s best for the general public.
“I don’t have a party affiliation,” she said. “And we take an oath to serve the people of North Carolina, and I think you have to be aware of all constituents: the people of North Carolina, students and faculties and yes, the legislature.”
Nelson said the vote on Friday is about saving UNC’s reputation above all else.
“I have read headlines that are suggesting the BOG is voting against civil rights,” she said. “And even though this isn’t the issue that’s on the table, I’m concerned about the way (the ban) will be addressed as it has the potential to be misconstrued."