News: CJ Exclusives

UNC’s Folt: closing civil rights center could tarnish university name

Chancellor says center essential part of law school's mission; BOG committee will discuss Aug. 1

CHAPEL HILL — The University of North Carolina’s governing body may provoke national backlash if it bars the UNC Center for Civil Rights from entering into lawsuits, said UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt.

Folt expressed her concerns July 28 in a five-page letter to Anna Nelson, chair of the board’s educational planning, policies, and programs committee.

In February the UNC Board of Governors introduced a proposal to strip the center of its litigation privileges. The CCR should do academic research, not sue government agencies, said board member Steve Long, the proposal’s architect.

Founded in 2001 by civil-rights pioneer and former NAACP Legal Defense Fund leader Julius L. Chambers, the center — which is affiliated with the UNC School of Law — advocates for low-income and minority communities, Ted Shaw, the center’s executive director, told Carolina Journal.

Barring the center from filing lawsuits will draw negative scrutiny from across the nation, Folt said.

“I have received hundreds of letters in support of the center — 375 in a single day,” Folt wrote. “I am concerned that eliminating or even weakening the Law School’s ability to train the next generation of civil rights lawyers will reflect poorly on our university and the school, as well as the university system and our state.”

In July, the board received a letter signed from 600 law school deans, faculty, and administrators around the nation stating that adoption of the proposal would “needlessly tarnish the reputation of UNC.”

The center operates under the umbrella of UNC’s law school, but is funded by private donors. Those donors aren’t likely to write checks once the center loses its ability to litigate, Folt said.

The CCR could be turned into a legal clinic, but that would take a lot of time and money, she added.

“The Law School has successful clinical programs in several other areas — we do not currently have the funding, staff, or space this effort would require,” she wrote, outlining alternatives for the center.

The center is free to continue litigating as long as it removes itself from any affiliation with UNC, Long told Carolina Journal in May.

Such a move would make sense, as the staff already uses office space off-campus, he said.

“It should be an independent organization,” Long said. “It absolutely should be an independent organization. Then they can operate as they wish.”

The litigation ban isn’t meant to be political, he said.

“This is not a vendetta, and my position would be the same whether the center was liberal, conservative, or moderate. And I have said that to [Shaw.] But I can say it until I’m blue in the face. I would feel the same way about any center that should not hire a full-time lawyer to litigate against cities and counties.”

Instead, Folt said, the board should value the center’s civil rights litigation and academic contributions.

“At our School of Law, litigation training in civil rights takes place in our center,” she said. “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.”

The board’s educational planning, policies, and programs committee will meet Aug. 1 to discuss the proposal.