Education

Could proposed litigation ban put UNC’s accreditation at risk?

Judith Wegner, former law dean at UNC-Chapel Hill, said banning litigation by the civil rights center could be ‘very risky action.’
Judith Wegner, former law dean at UNC-Chapel Hill, said banning litigation by the civil rights center could be ‘very risky action.’ UNC-CH NEWS SERVICES

UNC-Chapel Hill came off a yearlong probation by its accreditor in 2016.

Earlier this year, a UNC systemwide faculty body complained to the same accreditor that actions by the legislature and the UNC Board of Governors could jeopardize the state’s public universities.

Now, some are warning of another accreditation risk – the board’s proposed ban on litigation at the UNC Center for Civil Rights at the law school in Chapel Hill.

Accrediting bodies review academic standards, curriculum, financial status and governance when deciding whether to give universities and law schools their stamp of approval. Without being accredited, a university’s students can lose access to federal financial aid or the ability to sit for the bar exam in other states.

Some leaders from UNC and N.C. Central University’s law schools say barring the centers and clinics from engaging in legal action would effectively end those student training opportunities – leading to questions from the American Bar Association. Such a move could also invite scrutiny from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which has standards about academic freedom, faculty control of curriculum and political influence on governing boards.

Here are people who are sending their children there expecting that they’ll accredited degrees. Here are people who are alumni who will see the reputation of the school they went to put under the bus.

Judith Wegner, former dean of UNC’s law school

In a seven-page memo to the UNC system’s Board of Governors on May 16, former law dean Judith Wegner, now retired, appealed to members on this point, referencing the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take: “First do no harm.”

“They really are taking very risky action, and that’s the biggest point I wanted to help them understand,” Wegner said in an interview.

She listed a number of accreditation standards that the board could violate if it acts to shut down the work on the Center for Civil Rights, which takes on legal cases of school desegregation, fair housing and environmental justice for poor and minority clients. Law students work alongside privately funded staff attorneys, gaining practical experience. The ABA requires six credit hours of experiential education, such as a law clinic or field placement.

But several board members want to prohibit the center from filing legal claims and lawsuits, saying it is inappropriate for the center to represent clients in court against other government entities.

Wegner wrote in her memo that board members, who typically don’t deal with accreditation, may not understand the danger in “pushing forward with personal views.” She predicted a public outcry if accrediting bodies start raising questions about UNC.

“Who owns the university? I think it’s the public’s university,” Wegner said. “Here are people who are sending their children there expecting that they’ll earn accredited degrees. Here are people who are alumni who will see the reputation of the school they went to put under the bus.”

Serious accreditation sanctions are rare, but they do happen. The for-profit Charlotte School of Law has been on the verge of closing after its recent probation by the American Bar Association due to problems with admissions, curriculum and bar passage rates. The U.S. Department of Education acted to withdraw access to federal loans for the school’s students.

IMG_RAL_1A_2_1_AN6E26GJ_L174664962
Lou Bissette, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

Lou Bissette, chair of the Board of Governors, said accreditation is one aspect that the board will have to take into account as it weighs action in the next few months.

“That would certainly be a part of our consideration, because ... we’ve got to be an accredited law school,” Bissette said.

He pointed out that the proposed ban by board member Steve Long is only at the civil rights center and not at the many other law clinics at NCCU and UNC. “These clinics are very important today, and he’s not addressing that, because clinics are governed by rules of the American Bar Association and ours comply with that.”

Bissette said the board is awaiting alternative proposals from UNC-Chapel Hill leaders. He said some have suggested the idea of having the civil rights center form a nonprofit entity separate from the university. Students could still work on cases, but not under the banner of UNC, he said.

In a larger sense, university interventions by the board and legislature have drawn complaints before. In February, the UNC Faculty Assembly, made up of representatives from the 17 public campuses, took the unusual step of sending a memo of complaint to the Atlanta-based SACS Commission on Colleges, which passes judgment on the university’s accreditation.

Belle Wheelan, president of the SACS Commission on Colleges, is scheduled to travel to North Carolina this summer to make a presentation to the Board of Governors ‘concerning their responsibilities’ related to the accrediting organization.

The faculty listed 17 actions that appeared to run afoul of accreditation standards. Among the legislative actions cited: legislators’ active participation at UNC board meetings; interference in the presidential search process and the passage of laws that encroach on board authority for tuition, admissions and policy. The faculty group said the legislature has “packed” the UNC governing board with Republicans after the 2010 election.

Belle Wheelan, president of the SACS Commission on Colleges, said there was no official action being taken on the faculty memo at this point.

In an email, Wheelan said she met with UNC President Margaret Spellings to walk through the items of concern by the faculty.

“Many of them are directly related to the Legislature over which I have no control,” Wheelan said. “Some, however, are related to actions taken by previous Boards.”

Wheelan said she is scheduled to travel to North Carolina this summer to make a presentation to the Board of Governors, “concerning their responsibilities” related to the accrediting organization. She said she has given the same presentation to other boards.

It is scheduled for July 14, the same week the board is due to discuss the law school litigation ban.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

  Comments