A UNC committee has presented five alternatives for changes at the UNC Center for Civil Rights, but cautioned that there is no guarantee the center’s mission would survive under significant restructuring.
The center has been under the microscope of the UNC Board of Governors for months after a few board members objected to the center representing clients in lawsuits against local governments and agencies. They want to ban the center from litigation, saying legal action should not be taken under the UNC banner.
Center supporters have warned that such a prohibition could effectively end the civil rights work and endanger other legal clinics at the UNC and N.C. Central University law schools. The center was founded by the preeminent civil rights lawyer and former NCCU chancellor, Julius Chambers, who was a UNC law school alumnus.
A committee appointed by UNC Chancellor Carol Folt issued a supplemental report, dated June 27, that outlines five alternatives for the center. They are:
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▪ Change the name of the center to the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights, but keep it affiliated with the UNC law school and precisely define its mission.
▪ Change the center into a civil rights clinic at the UNC law school.
▪ Keep the center associated with the UNC law school, but outsource litigation to private law firms with support from center lawyers.
▪ Keep the center associated with the UNC law school, but outsource litigation entirely with no support from the center. The center would restrict activities to research and advocacy.
▪ Move the center out of the university, making it a nonprofit organization no longer associated with UNC.
The last alternative, which has been floated by some board members, would be the greatest departure and would effectively end the center that Julius Chambers designed, the report said.
“If the Center were no longer associated with UNC-Chapel Hill, the University would lose an important historical connection to the legacy of Julius Chambers, to the civil rights movement and to its own journey to address the effects of racial discrimination,” the report said. “Julius Chambers is an important historical figure in the life of the Law School, the University and the State of North Carolina. ... The University’s association with that legacy in a positive, supportive and meaningful way reinforces important values that we as a University community have chosen to embrace.”
None of the alternatives both address the board’s concerns about litigation and ensure that the center could continue its work on behalf of low-income and minority clients, the report said.
If litigation is taken outside the center, there is no assurance that cases could go forward because many private firms won’t take on significant civil rights work. There’s also a question of whether the center’s funders would accept such a major change in the center’s mission, the report said. The center does not receive money from the state.
The committee did not make recommendations and merely presented the five alternatives, listing advantages and disadvantages to each.
“The UNC-CH Committee wants to emphasize in closing that the availability of these alternatives is not an assurance that any of these alternatives is viable,” the report said.
The board could discuss the issue at a retreat next week but isn’t expected to take any action until September at the earliest.
The supplemental report, meant to answer a question by the board about alternative structures, was issued as the legislature adjourned. Other questions submitted by board members had been answered in a previous report.
The possibility of ending the center’s legal powers has led hundreds of supporters of the center to write to the board. At a public hearing in May, speakers said the center, and similar legal clinics, provide students with key education and practical experience — a requirement of the American Bar Association.