UNC's top lawyer to be reviewed

jstancill@newsobserver.comMarch 15, 2013 

STROHM, LESLIE 7/03

Leslie Chambers Strohm

DAN SEARS — UNC NEWS SERVICES

— UNC-Chapel Hill’s top lawyer is about to undergo an extensive review from an eight-member committee that will hear input from faculty, staff, students and alumni.

The panel is likely to get a lot of feedback.

The review of Leslie Strohm, vice chancellor and general counsel, is a routine evaluation, said UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp. It is the same process used every five years to conduct reviews of all deans and vice chancellors, he said.

It also comes at a time when Strohm has been a target of criticism now that the federal government is investigating the university for its handling of sexual assault cases. In rallies on campus, students have called for an administrative review of Strohm, as well as other university officials involved in student and legal affairs.

On Thursday, Thorp sent an email outlining the review process and inviting input on Strohm, who has been with the university for a decade and whose annual salary is $325,000.

Andrea Pino, a student and one of the complainants, said that within minutes of Thorp’s email, she heard from a half dozen students who plan to offer their views of Strohm and the university’s legal operation.

“There is a very persistent pattern of folks feeling very disconnected from the university counsel and feeling as if their voices aren’t really heard,” Pino said.

Strohm is a measured, soft-spoken woman who in January made a forceful denial of allegations that her office had deliberately underreported sexual assaults. She produced email evidence that appeared to bolster her side of the story.

On Friday in an email, Strohm said she is honored to “advance, support and defend” a great university that educates the next generation of leaders.

“The last few years have been particularly demanding and challenging, but the members of the Office of University Counsel remain all-in; we are fully committed to doing everything we can to support the University,” she wrote. “My enthusiasm for leading those efforts is strong.”

Strohm leads a legal operation that has been at the center of the university’s response to an NCAA investigation into the football program and various probes surrounding an academic scandal that revealed bogus classes and changed grades and that implicated a professor and department manager who have left the university. A State Bureau of Investigation probe is under way, and warrants from a Secretary of State investigation this week included information about at least one UNC football player receiving cash from an agent.

‘How are we helping’

Intense media coverage led to a flood of record requests from taxpayers, students, reporters and others, all of which are funneled through the legal office for detailed scrutiny. Some were denied or unfilled, and a media lawsuit against the university dragged on for months.

At an open government forum this week, some media representatives said the university had relied too heavily on lawyers’ advice, sometimes to the detriment of the school’s image.

Annie Clark, an alumna and one of the women who filed the complaint about sexual assaults, said the university is too focused on legalistic policies and compliance.

“Good policies are paramount,” she said. “However, if we don’t have another side that addresses a bigger picture and a human concern and the student voice, then what good is a policy if it’s not implemented and if people don’t understand it? … If it doesn’t benefit anybody except making sure you don’t get sued, then how are we helping our students?”

Thorp said the university is operating in an increasingly complex environment in which it has to abide by regulations from the state, the federal government and the NCAA.

“Research universities are just getting more and more complicated,” he said. “As a result, we’re relying on legal advice far more frequently than we ever have in the past. I think some of that is due to kind of worrying about things, but some of it is just the increase in regulations that we’ve experienced.”

Range and volume

Strohm said a recent snapshot of one week of work showed that her office advised the university on more than 400 matters, ranging from clinical research to distance education and international employment.

“The range, volume and complexity of the work we do on a daily basis never cease to amaze me,” she wrote.

Thorp said the legal office had grown, but not commensurate with its workload.

“Everywhere you turn there’s another thick rulebook that you’re trying to navigate,” he said. “So it’s a very challenging time to be in legal affairs at a university, and my hat’s off to everybody who does it.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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