RALEIGH, N.C. — A ban on courtroom work for a University of North Carolina center that represents the poor and disenfranchised puts the school’s “hard-earned reputation at risk” if it leads the closure of the center, the chancellor of UNC’s flagship campus says.
The UNC Center for Civil Rights provides valuable litigation training to law school students, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt wrote in a letter . “I am concerned that eliminating or even weakening the law school’s ability to train the next generation of civil rights lawyers will reflect poorly on our university and the school, as well as the university system and the state,” she wrote.
Folt sent her letter to Anna Nelson, chair of the committee that meets Tuesday to consider a litigation ban for the center, which receives no state funding. If the committee approves the ban, it would then go to the UNC Board of Governors, the policymaking board for the 16-university system, for consideration.
The center was founded in 2001 by noted civil rights attorney Julius Chambers, an African-American whose home, office and car were bombed as he pursued school desegregation cases in the 1960s and 1970s. It has taken on cases involving school segregation, equal education rights and a landfill in a poor community.
Center proponents blame ideology for the proposed ban. Conservative supporters of the ban say the center’s courtroom work strays from the education mission of the country’s oldest public university.
Folt writes that she has received as many as 375 letters in one day in support of the center. Earlier in July, a letter signed by 600 law school deans, faculty and administrators “made clear 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 addition, the litigation ban could deter donors who fund the center’s operations, Folt wrote.
A committee appointed by Folt at the behest of the Board of Governors to study alternative paths for the center found no options that would allow the center to continue the full breadth of its work while also satisfying those who oppose it.
Board member Steve Long, who has led the effort to ban the center’s litigation work, has said that the center must refocus on its education mission.
Long has challenged the center’s history, saying that the former law school dean Gene Nichol is the actual founder, not Chambers.
And Nichol and Long have their own history: In 2015, A board committee that included Long abolished the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity that Nichol led.
In her letter, Folt enters that same fray. “The community here and elsewhere does not disassociate the man (Chambers) and what he stood for from the center and the important work it has done on behalf of thousands of North Carolinians, among them African-Americans and other low-income minorities who otherwise would have had limited or no access to adequate legal counsel,” she wrote.
The center operates under American Bar Association guidelines and UNC system policies, Folt wrote. The law school dean approves all proposed litigation, which “has been just one last-resort strategy our center offered to citizens and communities who seek to address issues that could be resolved out of court through education and dialogue,” Folt wrote.
UNC President Margaret Spellings hasn’t taken a public position on the ban, and a spokesman didn’t respond Monday to an email. Lou Bissette, chair of the Board of Governors, has said that he’s undecided.