The Opinion Shop

UNC Board should remember UNC mission

UNC Board of Governors working group members Steven Long, left and chair James Holmes, right listen to staffers for the UNC-CH Center for Civil Rights respond to Long's questions about the Center's advocacy position December 11, 2014 at UNC's Spangler Center on the UNC-CH campus. The Board of Governors working group on Centers and Institutes was in its second day of hearing UNC system Center and Institute presentations as to their structure, funding and contributions to the state of North Carolina.
UNC Board of Governors working group members Steven Long, left and chair James Holmes, right listen to staffers for the UNC-CH Center for Civil Rights respond to Long's questions about the Center's advocacy position December 11, 2014 at UNC's Spangler Center on the UNC-CH campus. The Board of Governors working group on Centers and Institutes was in its second day of hearing UNC system Center and Institute presentations as to their structure, funding and contributions to the state of North Carolina. News & Observer file photo

Since its founding in 2001, UNC’s Center for Civil Rights has brought together students, faculty, policy experts and practicing attorneys to work on legal and social issues in the areas of education, housing, community development, economic justice, and voting rights. The center now finds itself under attack from within, as the UNC board of governors is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a proposal to ban part of the Law School from engaging in litigation, an important function of education at the center.

Board member Steve Long formally proposed the ban earlier this year, despite the fact that he does not serve on the board committee that oversees educational policy. His rationale? “Basically, to me the bottom line is staying on the university’s mission. Is the university going to stay on mission? That, to me, is the biggest issue.”

As enshrined in state law, UNC’s mission is accomplished, in part, “through public service, which contributes to the solution of societal problems and enriches the quality of life in the State.”

Surely the Center for Civil Rights is “on mission” in its “commitment to the advancement of civil rights and social justice, especially in the American South.” As part of that work, one of the critical functions of the center is to train students by giving them hands-on experience with litigation. This function is also clearly consistent with the mission of the University of North Carolina system.

Such a brazen attempt, seemingly by one zealous member of the UNC board of governors, to prevent the center from continuing to engage in litigation on behalf of North Carolina’s most vulnerable citizens, is an affront to principles of democracy. It is also a deeply troubling departure from longstanding principles of academic freedom and institutional governance.

The board’s approval of Mr. Long’s proposal would be an unprecedented infringement upon a faculty’s right and responsibility to determine curriculum, subject matter, and methods of instruction. The primary mission of higher education is to serve the common good. Mr. Long and any others working to curtail the activities of the center appear more concerned with serving those with privilege than with protecting the rights of students and educating the public about important social and economic issues. Academic centers must be free to sponsor curricular and co-curricular activities and provide services to the public, and not be limited by an ideological litmus test imposed by a member or members of a governing board.

We stand with the 600 law school deans, faculty and administrators from across the country, whose July 11 letter to the board asserted that preventing the Center for Civil Rights from representing clients in litigation would “needlessly tarnish the reputation of UNC in the national legal education community.” In so doing, we call on the UNC board of governors to vote against the proposed litigation ban and to cease its interference with the work of the Center for Civil Rights. The center’s critical work remains consistent with the mission of the University of North Carolina and in the service of the broader community.

Rudy Fichtenbaum is president of the AAUP. Michael DeCesare is chair of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) champions academic freedom; advances shared governance; and organizes to promote quality and economic security in higher education. Since 1915, the AAUP has shaped American higher education by developing standards that uphold quality education and ensure higher education’s contribution to the common good.

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