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BOG: UNC law’s Center for Civil Rights should halt political advocacy

Board member Long says center leans too far left; officials say their work furthers university's mission

The UNC Center for Civil Rights is under fire for providing legal representation to Moral Monday protesters, like these pictured at the General Assembly in 2014. Rev. William Barber, president of the N.C. NAACP, is second from left. (CJ file photo)
The UNC Center for Civil Rights is under fire for providing legal representation to Moral Monday protesters, like these pictured at the General Assembly in 2014. Rev. William Barber, president of the N.C. NAACP, is second from left. (CJ file photo)

CHAPEL HILL — The University of North Carolina law school has no business participating in one-sided political advocacy or entering lawsuits representing only left-leaning clients, several members of the UNC Board of Governors say.

The staff of the law school’s Center for Civil Rights counters that it offers a voice for progressive causes not provided by the General Assembly. Limiting the center’s ability to litigate would damage its ability to fulfill its mission.

The dispute has resulted in a proposal, introduced by board member Steve Long, that would block the CCR from filing lawsuits and taking other legal actions.

The proposal would forbid the center to “employ or engage, directly or indirectly, any individual to serve as legal counsel or representative to any party in any complaint, motion, lawsuit, or other legal claim against any individual, entity, or government, or to act as legal counsel to any third party.”

“Is it within the university’s mission to represent ‘Moral Monday’ protesters, as they have done? I don’t think so,” Long told Carolina Journal. “[Another] problem I see with that center is their exclusion of different points of view on issues such as voter ID, school vouchers, etc. They have a clear bias at that center, which I don’t think promotes educational inquiry and discussion.”

As part of the UNC School of Law, Long said, the center’s activities leave the impression its left-leaning views have the endorsement of the entire law school and its faculty, students, and alumni. Board member Joe Knott also expressed skepticism about the center’s role.

Since its founding in 2001, the center has “pursued an aggressive social justice agenda combining litigation, scholarly research, and grassroots activism,” according to its history statement.

“I feel like the anti-civil rights position is pretty well represented across our state in the institutions that reflect the legacy of discrimination and segregation, so I’m not certain that the cause of anti-civil rights needs an advocate,” the center’s managing attorney Mark Dorosin told CJ.

“All of our work is overseen by the dean of the law school, so the dean has to approve any litigation before we undertake it,” he said.

Law schools typically sponsor clinics to allow students to work with licensed attorneys and gain courtroom experience before taking bar exams. But the CCR is different because its primary focus is academic research rather than litigating, Long said.

Dorosin said the CCR’s activities aren’t that unusual, citing the University of Wisconsin Law School’s Economic Justice Institute, Albany Law School’s Law Clinic and Justice Center, and CUNY School of Law’s Economic Justice Project.

All three centers identify as legal clinics with a focus on advocacy and social justice.

Like clinics, CCR provides student internships, external field placements, and a legal fellowship for newly graduated law students, he said.

The CCR staffs two attorneys and an attorney fellow. One staff member focuses on academic research and administrative tasks, he said.

Long countered that education should be the sole focus of the CCR.

“They do engage in some research activities, which I think is appropriate for an educational center,” he said. “So I don’t have any qualms with the research they’ve done, because it’s part of the university’s mission to conduct research. And I don’t disagree with every position they’ve taken on various issues.”

The center’s staff is made up of state employees, and so it’s considered part of the UNC system, Long said.

The CCR raises between $350,00 and $450,000 from grants, foundations, and private donations each year. That money covers staff salaries, benefits, litigation costs, and other operating fees.

No state funding is used, and the center rents private office space in Meadowmont Village, just off UNC’s campus, said Ted Shaw, the Julius L. Chambers Distinguished Professor of Law at UNC and director of the CCR. All of the center’s clients are served pro bono.  

The CCR’s staff are employees of the state, Shaw said, since some serve in faculty roles at the UNC law school. State paid faculty salaries are separate from any pay the staff receives for work done at the center.

Long’s proposal is shrouded in controversy. Some supporters say hands-on learning is a clear component of the center’s academic structure. Others say the center has delivered invaluable victories for the cause of social justice.

John Wilson, editor of Illinois Academe, a publication of the American Association of University Educators, told CJ political disagreements between the two entities make the board’s opposition to the center problematic.

“This seems to be more of an ideological opposition, that [Long] doesn’t like what the civil rights center is doing,” Wilson told CJ. “And his questions about diversity of opinion and that sort of thing indicate that he is going after the center because of its opinions — which has happened before in North Carolina.”

In 2015, the UNC board shut down the UNC Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, a decision that Wilson publicly opposed. The board said the center — which The New York Times described as a “shadow political apparatus” for former Democratic U.S. Sen. John Edwards’ presidential campaign — was neither productive nor financially sustainable.

The decision to open or close an academic center should be left to the university, not to the UNC board, Wilson said.

“These kinds of decisions shouldn’t be micromanaged by politicians who decide what the law school should or should not be doing. In many ways, this is a matter [that should] be handled by academics with the expertise to decide whether or not this center is important to their academic mission and their research mission.”

The board was never part of the approval process to open the CCR, Long said. University administrators make those kinds of decisions.

After UNC’s poverty center closed, board members asked law school officials to study the CCR and offer a recommendation as to whether it should remain open.

But the school’s final report was full of holes and ignored the question of whether academic centers should be allowed to practice law, Long said.

That’s when the board decided to get involved.

“There are no rules on academic centers engaged in litigation. None. Which leaves the door open to center personnel pursuing their own personal agendas through these litigation activities,” Long said.

The university isn’t a public interest law firm, Long said.

But legal service and litigation should be the entire purpose for a law school and affiliated entities like the CCR, Wilson said.

“To me, I think it’s just bizarre to argue that litigation is contrary to the purpose of law school. Law school is all about litigation.”

“This situation is like telling an agricultural school not to let anybody farm.”

If the center isn’t willing to give up its legal practices it should operate independently of the UNC system, Long said.

“I don’t have any illusion that [the center’s staff] are going to stop doing what they’re doing. But they should not be doing that as part of the university, which has an educational mission. Their activities are inconsistent with the university’s mission.”

Dorosin disagreed, stating that dozens of centers across the university system are engaged in advocacy programs.

“Centers at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health are engaged in advocacy about improving people’s health outcomes. I think that’s part of the university’s mission — to engage in advocacy on behalf of the residents of the state,” he said.

The UNC system’s mission statement says the university should “discover, create, transmit, and apply knowledge to address the needs of individuals and society.

“This mission is accomplished through instruction, which communicates the knowledge and values and imparts the skills necessary for individuals to lead responsible, productive, and personally satisfying lives; through research, scholarship, and creative activities, which advance knowledge and enhance the educational process; and through public service, which contributes to the solution of societal problems and enriches the quality of life in the state,” the statement continues.

If forced to abandon litigation, the functions of the center would be severely undermined, Shaw told CJ.

“If we were unable to do litigation or litigation related work, we wouldn’t be able to pursue the mission that the center had at the moment of its creation and has had since then. And I think that’s the hope of those who are generating this proposed ban on litigation,” he said.

The university will consider all points of view before making a decision about the center’s future, said UNC President Margaret Spellings.

“I think the first step, obviously, is to get the facts,” she said. “What are practices around the country? And I think the committee is going to want to learn more about it and the potential merits and demerits of it.”

At a March 2 meeting, Anna Nelson, who chairs the board’s educational planning, policies, and programs committee, said the board will continue reviewing the proposal, and will revisit the issue in May.