Last week, to no one’s surprise, the UNC Board of Governors moved to fulfill Julius Chambers’ prediction by closing the Center for Civil Rights. Chambers had said, perceptively: “If we do our job, they’ll close us down.” Chambers knew North Carolina has ever teemed with men who would use power and privilege to stifle the rights of poor and black people. Chambers fought against them his whole life. He didn’t believe they had suddenly abandoned the state or changed their stripes. He knew they would not tolerate a team of brilliant lawyers, teaching the brightest students, to deploy the law to help those at the bottom secure their rights against those at the top. As ever, Chambers was right.
So, the Board of Governors formally embraces and abets the N.C. General Assembly’s famed and path-breaking war on poor people and people of color. It matters not that low-income blacks, Latinos and Native Americans will go unrepresented. That’s icing on the cake. It matters not that students will be denied powerful education opportunities; that the UNC Law School will lose its accreditation; or that the university itself, as its reviewing agency has warned, will be restricted and penalized. All falls before the imposed orthodoxy of extreme right-wing politics.
The president of the university sat mute in the chamber as the core academic independence and integrity of one of the world’s greatest educational institutions was decimated by political hacks. If politicians dictating curricular decisions and seriously jeopardizing the very accreditation of the university you lead doesn’t provoke comment, what would? An outside observer, viewing the deliberations, would have assumed the University of North Carolina has no president. And he’d be right. I know Margaret Spellings now fears the very political tides that brought her to North Carolina. But as John Kennedy once put it: “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger, ended up inside.”
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There was only one actual academic leader in the room at last week’s meeting. James Anderson, chancellor of Fayetteville State University, rose, unsolicited, and declared the meeting to be “a day of reckoning” for the UNC system. “We are asked to think about our fundamental values and our humanity,” he boldly stated. “Humanity transcends politics.” Anderson knew full well the repeatedly-demonstrated vindictiveness of the hyper-politicized board he addressed. He knew the dangers of raising his head as other administrators cowered. He wouldn’t betray his character to cling to his job.
I was also immensely proud of the courage and candor shown by my colleague, Mark Dorosin. After the board’s decision was recorded, Lou Bissette, the chair, said, stunningly, he wanted to reaffirm their “support for the law school and the civil rights center” – continuing the newly developed but now solidified tradition that, immediately after the Board of Governors makes a crushing and inappropriate intervention, they nakedly lie about what they have just done. All are then expected to listen politely as it is announced that what looks to all the world to be the night is actually the day.
Dorosin would have none of it. He stood, interrupted and inquired how the board could say it supported the civil rights center after it voted to close it down. “I implore you to be honest with the people of this state, you owe them that,” he said. An array of board members howled that Dorosin was “out of order.” He replied, Pacino-like, voice rising, “to say you support civil rights is out of order.” The board threatened to call in the cops. Dorosin, apparently, didn’t know his place.
But Dorosin knew exactly where he was and who, and what, he faced. This political caucus, despite the trappings of high office, believes in neither their sworn duty to protect the independence and integrity of the University of North Carolina nor Frank Graham’s high mission to offer the lamp of learning and service to even the poorest and most disadvantaged Tar Heels. They also govern through a constant cascade of perjuries. They are no longer a deliberative body but an occupying force. None of us, as Dorosin has taught, should pretend otherwise.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor of law at the University of North Carolina.