Higher Ed, North Carolina

Center for Civil Rights loses litigation right

September 12, 2017

A sad day at Carolina

The winds were swirling madly in the Caribbean last Friday, and we experienced our own storm in Chapel Hill (although, of course, nothing like the physical destruction wrought by Irma). The Board of Governors did the expected and ended the litigation authority of centers and institutes within the UNC system and, thereby, that of the UNC School of Law’s Center for Civil Rights (CCR). Earlier, as reported in the Daily Tar Heel, the UNC Faculty Council had passed a resolution asking the BOG not to vote to restrict the litigation right of centers and institutes. Faculty participating in centers and institutes “serve the public, enhance the education and training of students and carry out research to create new knowledge,” the resolution states.

From Jane Stancil in the Raleigh News & Observer: “After months of controversy and widespread opposition, the UNC Board of Governors on Friday approved a ban on litigation that will prevent the UNC Center for Civil Rights from doing legal work for low-income and minority groups. The ban would apply to all UNC centers, but would effectively end the civil rights center at UNC’s law school. The future of the center is unclear; its work could continue if it becomes a separate nonprofit group or a legal clinic at UNC. The center is currently funded with private donations.”

Supporters of the UNC Center for Civil Rights gathered outside the Board of Governors’ meeting. Photo courtesy of Inside Higher Ed.

Of all the issues that have come up over the years I have been dean, none have aroused as much emotion among faculty, students, staff and alumni as this one. Not everyone agreed that a ban on litigation would be wrong, but most did. The CCR plays a vital role in the training of law students on this campus and in this state. If we, as a public university – a university of the people and for the people, cannot be the public defender of people who otherwise would lack access, then who are we? But even if the issue of social justice is set aside, we must return to practical practice concerns – how do we teach students to do, to perform as professionals, in this case, litigate, without supervised practice? Shall we close our hospital clinics and ask physicians-in-training to learn only virtually and though lectures? Would anyone choose to be their patients later on? (That’s how physicians were trained more than a hundred years ago.) And what of our journalists, social workers, public health professionals, nurses, pharmacists and dentists? In each profession, students must learn theories, skills, knowledge and craft. Eventually, all must practice on real people (and animals, in the case of the Veterinary College at NC State). Part of the legal craft is litigation.

The work done at the CCR was good work on behalf of people who too often get less than they deserve, because they lack resources. In return for their efforts, law students learn about litigation and how to litigate. It’s similar for every one of the professions I listed. Health professionals often have learned and honed their skills by serving the poor and disenfranchised. Today, the model for this in public health and other health professions is that of partnership and community-engaged scholarship. In the end, the people of North Carolina and the reputation of the University benefit from the work done by professional schools of all kinds.

Quoted in Inside Higher Ed, Sherryl Kleinman, a professor of sociology at UNC Chapel Hill and member of the American Association of University Professors, also spoke out about the academic freedom concerns raised by the board’s proposal. “Service learning is an essential part of the undergraduate curriculum at UNC-Chapel Hill, and of course medical students and graduate students in journalism (among others) are supposed to learn how to do the work they will continue after they graduate. This vote is a threat to academic freedom throughout the UNC system.”

Our professional schools are part of why UNC-Chapel Hill has been a great university, part of a strong system. I do not want the quality and strength of that system or our university or the Gillings School to be eroded. Our position as the nation’s top public school of public health, a designation of which we are deeply proud, benefits North Carolina in jobs created by our research, professionals trained here who remain in North Carolina and service provided across the state by committed faculty, staff and students. To maintain this stature, we must continue to be part of a great university and a vital university system. Martin Brinkley, dean of the UNC School of Law, Carol Folt, UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor, Margaret Spellings, UNC system president, all are highly competent people whose jobs require them to provide the oversight of centers like the CCR. Every center undergoes regular review, and there are plenty of opportunities to correct processes and practices without changing the underlying structure and premises of what we do.

When I decided that it was time to leave my post at the National Cancer Institute, I could have returned to my faculty position at Duke University and was grateful for that possibility. But I received my undergraduate and master’s training at a public university, and have always believed in that mission. Like many people at UNC, when I came here, I took a cut in salary and benefits compared to what I would have received at Duke. I’ve never regretted it. Part of what has made this country great is the excellence of our public universities, places that not only have provided access to knowledge for so many, but have broken down barriers to access to health care and other services. Remaining a great public university will not be possible if this campus and others in the UNC system are managed by the BOG rather than by the system president, campus chancellors and other leaders. No matter how smart the members are, and BOG members are smart, they should not attempt to direct the organizations on whose boards they serve. Many of us serve on, lead and manage boards. There are distinct roles and responsibilities of governing boards versus organizational leadership.

I believe the UNC Board of Governors made an error in restricting the domains of centers and institutes, and I fear the decision will reverberate far more widely and deeply than they ever may have expected.

September 13, 2017, update: University leadership today posted responses to frequently asked questions about current campus issues, including the Center for Civil Rights; Silent Sam, the Confederate monument on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus; outside speakers, First Amendment and facilities use policy; the Chancellor’s Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill history; and diversity and inclusivity initiatives.

What’s the story?

Issues like the many-months-long wrangling about the CCR and other centers cost us respect nationally. We’ve become a regular feature in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Too often, messages about our outstanding research and innovative educational programs are being obscured by the politics of education.

The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School of Global Public Health.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.