Opinion: Clarion Call

Call. 31: Shakedown, Breakdown, Nakell Busted

Former UNC-Chapel Hill law professor Barry Nakell has been charged for the third time with stealing.
After Nakell plead guilty to his second charge of shoplifting, Chancellor Michael Hooker, upon the urging of Law School Dean Judith Wegner, fired him from his tenured professorship at UNC-CH in 1997 — a decision that was harshly criticized by faculty and media alike. Now it appears Hooker and Wegner were right to fire Nakell when they did.
Nakell’s first shoplifting offense occurred in 1991, when he stole from a Carrboro bookstore. The noted civil-rights lawyer was placed on six months’ unpaid leave of absence. In 1996, he was suspended with pay after shoplifting $36 worth of food and a restaurant guide from A Southern Season in Eastgate Shopping Center. A faculty committee held open hearings in early 1997 on Nakell’s fitness to continue as a tenured faculty member of the law school. Before the committee, Nakell apologized for his conduct and testified that his shoplifting owed to a medical condition, a depressive neurosis that caused him to steal small items in times of “unusual stress.” The committee recommended that Nakell be given a one-year leave to undergo therapy.
Hooker went against the committee’s recommendation and discharged Nakell. “This university cannot accommodate repeated violations of the criminal laws of this state and the professional standards applicable to a Law School professor, even if such misconduct ’seems to proceed’ from depressive neurosis,” Hooker stated in a letter to Nakell informing him of his termination.
“This is a criminal law professor who violated criminal law for a second time by his own admission,” Wegner told The News & Observer in 1997. “I was crystal-clear this was the right decision.”
The five members of the faculty committee disagreed. The five — professors Genna Rae McNeil, William Finn, Robert Gallman, Lars Schoultz and Beverly Taylor — wrote an open letter criticizing Hooker’s action. “Chancellor Hooker’s recent decision to dismiss a professor, while perfectly within the Chancellor’s authority, sets a precedent with potentially alarming ramifications for faculty governance,” the letter said.
Hooker’s decision was also criticized by a March 5, 1997 editorial by The News and Observer. In “Firing goes too far,” the editors wrote: “To order [Nakell] ousted without giving him another chance to rectify behavior that is as irrational as it is unacceptable was a mistake, and one that the university trustees would be wise to overturn.”
Not all media were opposed to Hooker’s decision, however. In an opinion article entitled “Thief Ousted,” the Carolina Review, a student journal, stated: “Common sense dictates that criminals not be allowed to teach criminal law. Duh.”