UNC President Spellings: UNC system caught in middle of state, federal fight on HB2

As the federal government and state elected leaders launched legal battles over North Carolina’s controversial bathroom law Monday, UNC system President Margaret Spellings said the university is “truly caught in the middle.”

Spellings responded to the U.S. Department of Justice late Monday with a letter saying the university is committed to complying with federal non-discrimination laws. She asked for more dialogue with federal officials to resolve concerns over the law known as HB2.

“Our first responsibility as a University is to serve our students, faculty, and staff and provide a welcoming and safe place for all,” Spellings said in a written statement. “The University takes its obligation to comply with federal non-discrimination laws very seriously. We also must adhere to laws duly enacted by the State’s General Assembly and Governor, however. HB2 remains the law of the State, and the University has no independent power to change that legal reality.”

Spellings’ letter sought to walk a fine line – assuring federal officials that the UNC system intends to follow federal law, while not refusing to follow HB2.

The university had until Monday to respond to the federal government’s threat to withhold federal funding because of the law, which it says discriminates against transgender people. In 2014-15, the UNC system received $1.4 billion in federal funds.

The UNC Board of Governors has scheduled a special meeting Tuesday for a legal briefing from its chief counsel.

Monday was a dramatic day, with Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders filing lawsuits asking a federal judge to declare that HB2 is not discriminatory. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch answered with a federal suit against North Carolina to stop HB2. For now, the university’s federal funding is intact, and Lynch said she looks forward to learning of the UNC board’s next steps.

“We remain anxious to see what those discussions will bring and so we are deferring on requesting the curtailment of funding now, but we do retain that right,” Lynch said. “It would be premature right now to give a date on when we actually will take that step.”

Spellings said further discussions would continue despite the legal actions taken Monday by both sides.

In her letter to federal officials, Spellings wrote, “Nothing is more important to the University than the safety and well-being of its students, faculty and staff. We have always worked to make our campuses welcome and safe for students and faculty from all backgrounds, beliefs and identities.”

On Sunday, the systemwide UNC Faculty Assembly wrote a letter to Gov. Pat McCrory, pointing out that 11 campus faculty bodies had passed resolutions opposing HB2. The assembly called the law “an ill-advised legislative intervention” into university governance.

“It is not in the interest of the public for the legislative authorities of this state to usurp the prerogatives of shared governance in institutions of public education,” wrote Stephen Leonard, a UNC-Chapel Hill faculty member and chair of the assembly.

Leonard said Monday that Spellings, who has been president of the 17-campus system for just two months, is in a no-win situation.

“There are some significant difficulties here,” he said. “If UNC is actively participating in the [state’s] suit, many will interpret that as an endorsement of the intent of the suit, as stated by Gov. McCrory and his legal team. But if the university doesn’t oppose the [state’s] lawsuit, they’ll be accused of implicitly endorsing the intent of the lawsuit. That’s an unenviable position for anyone to be in.”

Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed to this story.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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