At its most recent meeting, the UNC Board of Governors agreed to study a proposal to prevent university centers and institutes from providing legal services of any kind. Proponent Steve Long, a Raleigh lawyer, said the purpose of the policy is to “keep the focus of UNC centers on education and to avoid any more centers engaging in litigation.” He also said that “(s)uing the state and its municipalities violates the mission of the university.”
This policy, which targets the Center for Civil Rights at the School of Law at UNC-Chapel Hill, is misguided at best – and a disingenuous political attack at worst. It needs to be rejected for at least three reasons.
First, the stated objection to the center’s work is that it doesn’t further the university’s educational mission. Nothing could be further from the truth. The center is part of UNC’s law school and it regularly engages law students in its work, tasking them with investigating cases, interviewing and counseling clients, analyzing statutes and assisting with litigation. Through these activities students have the opportunity to develop a wide range of practical legal skills that are essential to graduating from Carolina Law as “practice-ready” lawyers.
The American Bar Association, which serves as the accrediting body for law schools in the U.S., recently adopted new rules requiring that students receive at least six credits of this kind of experiential education before graduation. The professional development opportunities that the Center offers are not just educational, they are now a required part of the curriculum at all U.S. law schools, including at Carolina Law.
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Second, the attack on the work of the center relies on a false portrayal of the university’s mission as one that is narrowly limited to education. In fact, the university’s formal mission statement identifies teaching, research and public service as the pillars of its mission. The mission statement, adopted by the Board of Governors in 2009, says that the university will provide “knowledge-based services and other resources of the university to the citizens of North Carolina and their institutions to enhance the quality of life for all people in the State.”
The work of the center falls squarely within this public service mission. Like many other schools and departments throughout the university, the center is deeply engaged outside of the classroom in activities that attempt to improve the quality of life for vulnerable citizens across the state. Far from being radical, the legal work of the center advances the most fundamental values of North Carolina, including upholding the right to vote, the right to receive a quality education, and the right to be free of discrimination. There shouldn’t be any doubt that the mission of the state’s public university system includes doing the work needed to secure these most basic rights of democratic citizenship.
Finally, this proposal should be rejected because it politicizes the university. Among the most important and distinctive traditions of Western higher education is the commitment to academic freedom. The defense of this principle is essential to the preservation of the ideals of freedom of thought, rigorous academic inquiry, and the practical deployment of knowledge for the benefit of citizens. As was the case with the infamous North Carolina Speaker Ban, which was imposed on the university by the legislature in the 1960s, efforts like this proposal undermine academic freedom and, ultimately, harm the reputation and functioning of the university itself.
The motto of North Carolina is esse quam videri. This translates as “to be, rather than to seem,” and claims integrity as the hallmark of the state. The proposal to restrict the activities of the Center for Civil Rights at the UNC School of Law may be dressed up as a legitimate effort to ensure that the university’s resources are directed to activities that further its mission, but it doesn’t take much to see through this false justification. The center gives students the opportunity to develop the professional skills they will need as lawyers, furthering the university’s educational mission, and it extends the knowledge and resources of the University to improve North Carolinians’ quality of life by securing their most essential rights, furthering the public service mission.
The work of the center is clearly consistent with the mission of the university. In light of this, the Board of Governors must reject this proposal. If not, perhaps it is time for North Carolina to find a new motto.
Andrew Foster, a 2000 graduate of UNC Law School, is a clinical professor of law and director of Clinical Programs at Duke Law School.