The UNC Board of Governors really deserves a more accurate name. One that fits is the UNC Board of Political Meddlers.
Certainly that new title was earned Tuesday when a committee of the board voted 5-1, with one abstention, to strip the UNC Center for Civil Rights of its ability to file lawsuits on behalf of its clients, primarily low-income people. The center's work focuses on education, housing and community development, economic justice and voting rights. The full board is likely to vote on the issue at its September meeting. It is expected to approve the ban on lawsuits by the center or any other UNC academic center.
The committee vote represents not just an attack on the center, but a rejection of the founding principles of the university itself. The University of North Carolina was created to give the public the power of knowledge, not only with regard to its students, but also with regard to those whom its students, faculty and graduates would assist. This vote seeks to cut that vital service.
Steve Long, a 56-year-old Raleigh tax attorney and member of the UNC Board of Governors, is the driving force behind the ban. He says, “The university should not be, in my opinion, hiring full-time lawyers to sue anybody.”
Long, a former board member of the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank, sponsored for election to the board by state Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake County Republic and himself a chronic meddler on behalf of conservative causes. Long’s conservative credentials explain what he doesn’t say directly. He doesn’t want the university to defend those subject to discrimination or injustice, a practice that annoys some business interests and conservatives generally.
UNC Law School Dean Martin Brinkley and UNC Chancellor Carol Folt both defend the center’s ability to sue as a vital part of educating law students in what should be the first, best use of the law, the pursuit of justice. And the agency that accredits UNC has warned that a board that makes the university hew to its political agenda will risk the university’s academic standing.
None of that mattered Tuesday despite an admirable effort by the lone dissenting voter, Anna Spangler Nelson, to remind her fellow committee members of the university’s ideals and how a ban would would trample on them.
The Board of Governors can govern or it can meddle for political purposes and diminish what it is charged with protecting. That choice — not the fate of the center — is what will really be up for a vote in September.