John Drescher

It’s time for UNC President Margaret Spellings to lead

UNC system President Margaret Spellings doesn’t get a pass on tough issues.
UNC system President Margaret Spellings doesn’t get a pass on tough issues.

Margaret Spellings, the president of the UNC system, has been mostly silent on a contentious issue involving an organization under her jurisdiction — whether the UNC Center for Civil Rights should be barred from filing lawsuits.

Spellings, the former education secretary for President George W. Bush, has different priorities from some of her vocally conservative bosses on the UNC Board of Governors. No doubt she wishes this issue had not arisen to distract board members from what she wants to get done, and surely she wants to avoid a confrontation with her board.

But Spellings, a national figure who was brought to UNC last year with a big salary, doesn’t get a pass on tough issues. It’s time for Spellings, as the top administrator of the system, to weigh in with a recommendation. At the least, Spellings ought to set a framework for debate, which is scheduled for Friday, and say what this issue should and should not be about.

The Center for Civil Rights is affiliated with UNC’s law school but is supported by private money. Law students work on the cases with two lawyers and an executive director. As The News & Observer’s Jane Stancill reported recently, the center’s clients typically have been poor and minority groups such as neighborhoods battling for municipal water and sewer service or victims of forced sterilization.

Some members of the UNC Board of Governors, who are appointed by the state legislature, don’t like the center for various reasons, some more valid than others.

One board member, in supporting a ban on litigation for the center, said there are too many lawsuits; if that’s the case, a more effective step would be to admit fewer law students. (The market, which ought to matter to conservative board members, already is taking care of this).

Another board member disagreed with law students getting hands-on legal training. That kind of training is promoted by the American Bar Association. Surely real-world training, in any academic discipline, is a part of the university’s mission.

The center’s record

The strongest arguments against the center come from board member Steve Long of Raleigh, who has led the effort against the center. Long is concerned about the Center for Civil Rights suing another government entity and the ensuing legal costs for the defendant, which can be hefty.

That’s a valid point if the center is consistently bringing cases with little merit. Long, a tax attorney, reinforced that point in a memo in which he raised questions about the center’s record.

“When asked, UNC-CH officials stated that the UNC-CH Center has won no judgment proving the merits of its claims in the last 10 years,” Long wrote.

But of course a plaintiff can win its case, or most of its case, in a settlement too. And the Center for Civil Rights has settled a number of cases in the past 10 years to the benefit of its clients. You can read Stancill’s story at and decide for yourself whether there was merit to suits filed by the center.

The broader issue for conservatives like Long is that academic centers in the UNC system typically advocate from the left and not from the right.

“The university is a place where the partisans are supposed to meet and debate in front of the public and students,” Long said in 2015. “It cannot do that if the university is partisan itself.”

Long has a point. But if that’s his gripe, isn’t that what the debate should be about? That gives Spellings an opening to change the Center for Civil Rights rather than effectively close it. But she hasn’t engaged on the issue.

Squishy statement

Behind the scenes, there’s a struggle underway about who will run the UNC system – Spellings or the more aggressive conservative change-agents on her board.

When Carol Folt, the chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill, recently made the case to a board committee in favor of the civil rights center, Spellings offered not a word, letting her chancellor twist in the wind.

After the committee recommended banning the center from future litigation, Spellings released a squishy statement that took no position and meekly affirmed that the board “sets policy for the University.”

Spellings has been an advocate for minorities during her career. She is a savvy political observer and a smooth operator. By sitting out the debate, she is choosing her fights carefully and postponing conflict with her board for another day.

But eventually that confrontation is coming. Spellings can assert herself now or later.

She can sit passively and hope her board subdues itself. More likely her inaction will embolden the active micromanagement she wants to avoid. On a powerful issue involving her flagship law school, to date it looks like Spellings doesn’t want to lead.