The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill takes its mission of public service seriously, and has always interpreted that mission as broad and virtually unlimited. Sometimes, the mission has been answered with demonstrations and activism. Other times action has been more direct, as with the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which has taken up causes like school desegregation, environmental law and fair housing by marshaling faculty and students in legal action.
A UNC system Board of Governors member, attorney Joe Knott of Raleigh, wants to put a stop to that. In a preposterous proposal, Knott would prevent any UNC center or institute from filing a “complaint, motion, lawsuit or other legal claim” against any individual, entity or government. The center couldn’t be legal counsel or hire a legal counsel for any party.
Knott says his idea has merit: “We need,” he says, “to confine ourselves to our mission, which is academic. The university is not a public interest law firm and doesn’t need to be.”
One can only imagine what the late William Friday, president of the UNC system for 30 years, and the late Dr. Frank Graham, the university’s president and “North Star” for its entire modern history, would think of this idea, but it’s safe to say they wouldn’t think much of it.
Knott’s idea smacks, frankly, of an attempt to limit potential activism on the part of faculty and students because that activism tends to be liberally inclined. It’s ridiculous to imply that university faculty and students should be confined to classrooms, period. One wonders what Knott and his conservative mates on the BOG would think if this center were carrying on legal fights for conservative causes.
Students, particularly law students, can learn much from participating in real cases, particularly those that — as is the case with this center — deal with battles for civil rights.
This proposal would have a chilling effect on all centers at all universities — and perhaps that’s exactly what the conservative Republicans now in control of the Board of Governors have in mind. But the state might very well suffer without this and other centers.
The center helped, for example, to stop a waste dump in Brunswick County, and was involved in a landmark decision to guarantee the constitutional right to a “sound, basic education” for all North Carolina public school students. The center’s lawyers also have argued on behalf of citizens who were involuntarily sterilized for decades by the state.
This center, in other words, helps fulfill not just the academic mission of the UNC system, but the moral mission of public service to which the university has been dedicated for its entire history.