Following a three-hour special meeting of the UNC Board of Governors Tuesday, university leaders agreed to seek legal representation in a federal lawsuit over House Bill 2, the controversial “bathroom bill” that has sparked state and federal litigation over alleged civil rights violations.

Board members also said they will continue to stand behind new system president Margaret Spellings and her decisions on how to handle the situation, said BOG chair Lou Bissette.

“We support all of the actions President Spellings has taken thus far in leading the university in responding to H.B.2,” Bissette stated following the meeting. “The board appreciates and values her ongoing leadership.”

“As she said yesterday, the university is in a difficult position, caught in the middle between state and federal law,” Bissette continued. “We are committed to resolving the legal issues in [UNC’s] favor as quickly as possible. In the meantime, we are going to continue to focus on our primary mission of educating students.”

Members met in closed session to discuss the federal suit against the state and determined that they needed outside legal assistance to deal with the Justice Department’s lawsuit.

Spellings, who wrote to the Justice Department Monday to assure them that the university would abide by federal anti-discrimination laws, also expressed to officials her concern over the crossfire that has placed the university in a compromising position.

“[H.B.2] remains the law of the State, … and the university has no independent power to change that legal reality,” she wrote.

At stake for the university is $1.4 billion in federal funds that last year was granted to the UNC system for the purpose of research and financial aid.

Board members are divided on the issue, as revealed in multiple email exchanges published on Tuesday in The News and Observer.

“Obviously we cannot afford to lose federal funding,” wrote board member Champ Mitchell to several of his colleagues. “In addition to having to immediately close a number of campuses with the withholding of Pell [Grant] funds, the loss of [National Institute of Health] and other research grants would mean the exodus of our most distinguished faculty. In fact, I expect other universities are at this moment planning to use this uncertainty to entice our best away.”

In contrast, on May 5 — the day following the Department of Justice’s assertion that H.B.2 violates the Civil Rights Act and Title IX — board member Steve Long wrote to Bissette, advising him to consider legal action.

“Given the aggressiveness of the DOJ in attacking not only the University but all NC institutions receiving federal funding, I don’t believe the State has much choice but to fight DOJ in court,” Long wrote. “I just don’t want you to think, due to our meeting yesterday, that all of us on the BOG are against the idea of bucking the DOJ if the Governor and Legislative leaders go that route.”

Enacted March 23 by a special session of the General Assembly, H.B. 2, known as “the bathroom bill,” overturned a Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance that would have allowed transgendered individuals to use public and private bathrooms and changing rooms of the sexual identity they chose.

Under the new legislation, public schools and agencies must offer single-sex multiple-occupancy bathrooms, and students are required to use those facilities based on their biological sex, rather than their self-proclaimed gender. Private businesses, however, are able to operate their restrooms under whatever parameters they choose.
Spellings, who has been at the center of heated protest since her election last year, on April 5 released a memo stating that the university would comply with H.B. 2, an announcement that fueled outrage among students and faculty alike.

The former Secretary of Education for the George W. Bush administration, Spellings has continued to take fire from student protestors who say her track record is “anti-gay” and discriminatory.

Spellings responded again to these accusations on Tuesday, stating publicly that UNC is an institution that upholds diversity and acceptance.

“We have said very clearly that these institutions want to be and are and have been welcoming places for every type of individual, period,” Spellings said. “And we will continue to be. And the kind of education that’s happening for every student in the system is world class. … And I think our job here is to educate students and to abide by the laws of our state and country.”

Kari Travis is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.