UNC Center for Civil Rights attorneys are out of a job. Now what?

Protestors stand outside The Center for Leadership Development in support of the UNC Civil Rights Center before a committee debate determining the center's future on Aug. 1, 2017, in Chapel Hill, NC.
Protestors stand outside The Center for Leadership Development in support of the UNC Civil Rights Center before a committee debate determining the center's future on Aug. 1, 2017, in Chapel Hill, NC.

UNC-Chapel Hill is terminating the employment of the two attorneys at the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which has been banned by the UNC governing board from taking legal action on behalf of poor and minority clients.

The center’s managing attorney, Mark Dorosin, and its senior staff attorney, Elizabeth Haddix, said they were notified last week by letter that their employment would end on Jan. 12.

On Tuesday, they filed papers with the Office of the Secretary of State to create a new nonprofit corporation called the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights, naming the entity after center founder, the late Julius Chambers, a noted civil rights attorney, UNC graduate and former N.C. Central University chancellor. The two attorneys said in interviews Wednesday that they are looking for a sustainable structure to be able to continue their work. They’re considering several options, including joining a social justice nonprofit in North Carolina, affiliating with a national civil rights organization or operating independently.

Meanwhile, a UNC law spokeswoman said the UNC Center for Civil Rights will continue as a research and academic center and remain “a vital part” of the law school. “However, funding and resources for the advocacy work of the Center are running out, and the law school is not in a position to sustain that part of its operating budget past January 2018,” wrote Katherine Kershaw, communications manager of the law school.

In September, the UNC Board of Governors approved a ban on advocacy by university centers, which would prevent the UNC center from doing legal work for clients. The center’s lawyers and law students have taken on cases of school desegregation, fair housing and environmental justice. Its clients have typically been poor and minority groups, such as rural neighborhoods battling for municipal water and sewer service.

The board’s controversial vote came after months of debate about whether the 16-year-old center should be allowed to sue other government entities, or whether the board’s proposed ban would harm UNC students’ legal education and hurt the university’s reputation.

Dorosin said that process had made it impossible for the privately funded center to raise money in recent months with its future so uncertain. “The long and drawn out nature of the attack by the Board of Governors really put off a lot of our funders,” he said.

He said there are still donors who want to support the work, but they’re waiting to find out about the center’s transition plan. “Once we know how we’re going to spin this work out from under the boot heel of the Board of Governors, I think folks will be very generous,” he said.

Dorosin posted news on Twitter and Facebook, saying he was worn out after a week that was “quite the rollercoaster.” It included his termination notice, an academic lecture, a 20th anniversary conference on a landmark school lawsuit and an appeal to the N.C. Supreme Court on a civil rights case involving the Halifax County schools.

“It was a pretty devastating blow, mostly because it was a concrete realization of the state of this center and for the work that it’s done ... and for the legacy of Julius Chambers,” Dorosin said of his termination letter. “It was not unexpected, but it was really a grim coda to what we’ve been through with the Board of Governors over the last year.”

Board of Governors member Steve Long, a Raleigh attorney who led the charge to ban legal advocacy, said Wednesday that Dorosin’s departure was overdue. “It should have been done years ago,” said Long, a conservative Republican who has been concerned about ideological balance at the university. “He’s a political hack who has abused university resources for years to further his liberal agenda, not education.”

Dorosin is a Democrat who serves as chairman of the Orange County Board of Commissioners. He has expressed interest in running for the N.C. Court of Appeals.

Long said he took offense to some of Dorosin’s comments during the debate, and maintains that he has no opposition to civil rights work, only that lawsuits not be conducted under the university’s name.

Kershaw said the law school’s focus is on helping find a home for the center’s advocacy work on civil rights. “We at the law school also want to ensure that our students who seek careers as civil rights lawyers have ongoing practical training opportunities at least as good as those the Center has provided them up to now,” Kershaw said.

The center’s director, Ted Shaw, is a tenured professor who will remain on the law school faculty.

Haddix, the senior staff attorney, said the center has always been structured to work with law students and its future could involve law students from other schools, including Duke, NCCU, Campbell and Wake Forest. “There’s a lot of students that are wanting these civil rights law practice experiences,” she said.

Dorosin said there had been conversations with Duke University, but its law school is searching for a new dean and therefore the timing wasn’t right.

He said there’s been an outpouring of support for the center’s mission since the board’s action. In his social media messages, Dorosin appealed for donations for the center.

“The stakes have never been higher for people committed to social justice, at the national level, at the state level and at the university level,” Dorosin said. “The opponents of civil rights and social justice have marshalled their forces and are on the attack. We have to be prepared to push that back.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill