It was disappointing that the Herald-Sun’s July 27 article on the motives behind UNC Board of Governors (BOG) member Steve Long’s efforts to end advocacy by the UNC Center for Civil Rights focused on the dynamic between Long and former UNC Law School dean Gene Nichol.
While Mr. Long’s personal story may interest some readers, it is an irresponsible distraction from the real issue at stake in the upcoming BOG vote on the proposal to eliminate the Center’s advocacy: a governmental attack on both academic freedom and the public service mission of the University of North Carolina. Whatever Mr. Long’s personal motivation, it is certainly less important than the ramifications of a BOG decision to adopt the ban.
The proposal directly impacts academic freedom at UNC. On July 14, the News & Observer reported that Belle Wheelen, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, warned against “micromanaging” the universities it oversees and advised the BOG to “protect academic freedom and respect the faculty’s authority over the curriculum and educational matters.” She also cautioned the BOG to avoid being controlled by a minority of members or outside influences with their own interests or agenda.
The BOG is an arm of the State, with limited authority over the UNC system, targeting a UNC Law School center that offers unique and sought-after experiential learning opportunities representing clients who are challenging systemic race discrimination. There is no legitimate justification to target the Center, which raises all of its operating funds from private sources – a fact missed by Mr. Long, despite the assertion by his fellow board member that Mr. Long is “on his A-game” when it comes to “presenting fact and detail.”
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And the Center provides valuable training to UNC law students. The proposed ban on providing direct services to under-resourced communities and families in North Carolina directly contradicts the public service mission of the University. As UNC’s chancellor recently stated, “the proposed new policy will fundamentally change how the Center operates and a foreseeable result will be its closure.”
The attempt by the BOG to argue that the advocacy ban is not targeted exclusively at the Center for Civil Rights, and Mr. Long’s indignation when confronted directly about his real motives, are textbook examples of the pretext governing bodies present in defense to allegations that their actions will have discriminatory impacts on people of color. The BOG’s vote is a governmental act that will preclude low-wealth communities of color in our state from having legal representation in their efforts to dismantle systemic discrimination. It will end Julius Chambers’ legacy at UNC, which since 2001, has made good on UNC’s mission to “extend knowledge-based services and other resources to the citizens of North Carolina...to enhance the quality of life for all people in the State.”
Perhaps most notably, this advocacy ban is in lock-step with other recent legislative acts at both the state and federal level aimed at curtailing civil rights and anti-discrimination protections. When the BOG votes, it implicates every voter in North Carolina, not just the obsession of one BOG member, and becomes not one man’s legacy, but our own.
Elizabeth McLaughlin Haddix is a Senior Staff Attorney at the UNC Center For Civil Rights School of Law.