The University and its affiliated bodies faced several major lawsuits over the course of the year.
There have been no settlements or final rulings in cases involving affirmative action, alleged discrimination in the Kenan-Flagler Business School and unused fees during the pandemic, but a settlement was reached between the University and Nikole Hannah-Jones.
In November 2014, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), Inc., filed a lawsuit against UNC. The case, which could decide the fate of affirmative action, reached the Supreme Court of the United States on Oct. 31.
Affirmative action involves the consideration of race in college admissions processes — something that was constitutionally confirmed in Grutter v. Bollinger and has been defended by the Supreme Court ever since.
However, the Court now yields a conservative supermajority. The precedent set in Grutter recommends a 25-year sunset on affirmative action — one that might end the policy's constitutionality in six years. Considering the arguments that affirmative action is not a permanent standard for admissions and the Court's consideration of race under 'strict scrutiny,' the Court has numerous avenues for ruling in favor of SFFA.
Further, the Court repeatedly questioned University defendants about a quantitative off-ramp from race-conscious admissions, a plan that some of the justices argued the University was not able to define clearly.
Patrick Strawbridge, counsel for SFFA, primarily argued that race-conscious admissions, while helping some, negatively affect the chances of other potential students.
University defendants, alongside United States Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, argued that affirmative action and the diversity it produces is critical to educational benefits in higher education.
SFFA also sued Harvard College over its affirmative action policies, which was heard in the Court minutes after UNC’s case. The two cases were initially consolidated but were separated in July after Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused herself from the Harvard case due to previous involvement at the college.
If the Court rules in favor of SFFA against UNC — an outcome that several experts predict— public universities would no longer be able to consider race in their admissions process.
The Court’s decision is expected to be released sometime early next year.
Alleged discrimination in Kenan-Flagler
Angelica Rose Brown, a former graduate student in Kenan-Flagler’s organizational behavior doctoral program, filed a federal lawsuit in August against the University, three professors and the UNC Board of Governors.
Brown faced an “ongoing pattern of discriminatory actions,” including unlawful retaliation and Civil Rights Act violations, according to the filing in U.S. District Court. The filing said Brown “was denied the usual latitude in research direction extended to non-African American students.”
Douglas A. Shackelford, former dean of Kenan-Flagler, announced on Sept. 16 that he would step down from his position. The notice came 17 days after Brown’s lawsuit was filed.
Months later, on Nov. 18, the University and three Kenan-Flagler professors filed a motion to dismiss Brown’s lawsuit. University counsel said any issues between Brown and the professors were focused on research projects and not her race.
“The Court should dismiss Brown’s claims because even if all factual inferences are drawn in her favor, she has failed to allege facts that allow this Court to reasonably infer that the University defendants are liable,” the University counsel said in the motion.
Additionally, counsel points to certain immunities for defendants acting under the state, immunities which they argue constitutionally justify the dismissal of Brown’s case.
Davis said in an email statement to The Daily Tar Heel that their team anticipates a ruling on the motions early next year.
Breach of contract
UNC senior Landry Kuehn and N.C. State University graduate student Joseph Lannan continue to pursue a lawsuit against the two universities for unused fees during the fall 2020 semester, citing the fees as a breach of contract.
David Stradley, Lannan and Kuehn's primary counsel, argues that the Board of Governors failed to uphold a contract with students — one that implied paying fees for in-person resources would yield the use of those resources.
“All the other schools managed to keep students on campus and continue campus activities, at least to some extent,” Stradley told The DTH.
As in Brown’s case alleging discrimination in Kenan-Flagler, the BOG argues that the University and its affiliates are subject to sovereign immunity and that students and their universities are under a statutory relationship.
The case now awaits a decision from the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Nikole Hannah-Jones settlement
The University reached a settlement with Nikole Hannah-Jones in July, more than a year after the UNC Board of Trustees’ initial failure to grant the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist a tenured position and months after a lawsuit was filed.
The settlement included stipulations for three campus initiatives and a payout of $74,999.99 for Hannah-Jones to resolve related legal fees — the largest amount allowed to be directly approved by a UNC System chancellor, according to the UNC Policy Manual.
Three campus initiatives were bolstered by the settlement, including:
- Training 20 faculty and staff members as search and selection process advisers through the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
- Posting a position for a trauma-informed therapist in the Multicultural Health Program by July 31
- Reserving money each fiscal year for events sponsored by the Carolina Black Caucus
Preston Fore and Eilah Wood contributed reporting.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.