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UNC law school rallies as legislators consider big budget cut

Some think Republican lawmakers’ threatened cut is aimed squarely at Gene Nichol, former dean and well-known liberal who has been critical of GOP leaders.
Some think Republican lawmakers’ threatened cut is aimed squarely at Gene Nichol, former dean and well-known liberal who has been critical of GOP leaders.

UNC law alumni are building their case against a budget cut that they say would be catastrophic to the state’s oldest professional school.

As state House and Senate budget negotiators work out their differences in the coming days, supporters of the UNC School of Law are working the phones and sending emails to try to win legislators over. The Senate, which rolled out its budget last month, proposed a $4 million reduction, which amounts to 30 percent of the school’s state appropriation. The more recent budget plan, from the House, had no cut for the law school.

The prospect of losing such a large share of their state funding is more than worrisome to the school’s leaders. It would, no doubt, lead to cuts in staff and programs at the school, said Martin Brinkley, dean of the school.

“If we had a cut like that, it would be really difficult to not have a significant personnel impact at some level,” Brinkley said.

The law school’s total annual budget this fiscal year was $31 million. About 70 percent of the school’s budget is personnel cost, according to Brinkley.

He said he had not devised a specific plan for how the school would deal with the size cut the Senate proposed. Instead, he said, he’s focused on keeping the cut from happening.

A small group of well-connected UNC law graduates has met every couple of days to talk about strategy, said 1986 law graduate Walter Fisher, managing partner of the Raleigh and Charlotte offices of Troutman Sanders, an international law firm.

‘Pretty stark’

Alumni networks have sprung into action after being notified by email. In particular, several high-profile Republican lawyers – such as former Charlotte mayor Richard Vinroot – have stepped up to try to sway legislators away from the cuts. Alumni haven't exactly been storming Jones Street. The campaign to win support has been targeted, with well-connected alumni reaching out to legislators they know.

“We do believe this is a significant enough concern that it’s important that our alumni at large know about it,” Fisher said. “The facts are pretty stark.”

Two years ago, a proposed $3 million cut to the law school did not come to pass. At the time, then-Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca said: “If there’s anything we have too much of, it’s lawyers.”

This year, talk of cuts comes at a time when the school’s Center for Civil Rights is under the microscope by legislative appointees to the UNC Board of Governors. Some board members want to stop the center, which represents low-income, minority clients, from filing lawsuits against local governments and government agencies. The proposed ban on litigation could be decided late this summer for the UNC center, which is privately funded.

There’s been little explanation about the reason for the proposed cut in a year when the state’s coffers are healthy and spending increases are planned in other areas. But some think Republican lawmakers’ threatened cut is aimed squarely at Gene Nichol, former dean and well-known liberal who has been critical of GOP leaders in commentaries for The News & Observer’s editorial pages.

In 2015, the UNC system board abolished the law school’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, directed by Nichol, who charged that the decision was purely partisan. Protesters said it was a violation of academic freedom. The center shut down, but within days Nichol had launched the N.C. Poverty Research Fund as part of the UNC Law Foundation.

Nichol declined to comment for this story.

Rep. Verla Insko, an Orange County Democrat, speculates that the school’s generally “left of center” faculty, especially Nichol, have drawn attention from the Republican-led legislature. But, she said, it’s hard to imagine a 30 percent cut to the school’s state funding.

“My guess is that it’s a warning shot, and that they’ll take some cut but not the whole thing,” Insko said.

Shelly Carver, spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, said it’s too early to predict what will happen.

“Budget negotiations are ongoing as we speak, so it would be premature to speculate on whether that specific provision will be included in the final version,” she replied when asked about the cut.

Neither Chad Barefoot of Wake Forest nor David Curtis of Lincoln County, the GOP co-chairmen of the higher education budget committee in the state Senate, returned phone calls for this story to discuss the proposed cut. While the Senate budget cut funding for the law school by $4 million, it directed a total of $11 million in additional funding for the UNC School of Medicine in Chapel Hill and at its Asheville campus.

‘Unhelpful’

Fisher, the law school alumni leader, said, “We do have one or more members of our faculty who are extraordinarily vocal about their opposition to things that members of the General Assembly are supportive of. That, at least in some instances, has been unhelpful to us.”

Fisher thinks the school has dropped in the national rankings because of the lack of appropriate funding for scholarships, salaries and other priorities.

The school ranks 38th currently in U.S. News & World Report’s ratings. In 2000, it ranked 22nd.

Nationally, legal education has experienced a major slump since the recession. Law school enrollment across the United States was flat this year after several years of steep declines in applications. UNC has fared well in enrollment because its tuition is a relative bargain. It has about 675 students.

Fisher said the school really needs increased funding to deal with the market challenges. “But we felt the best we could hope for is to avoid any cut,” he said.

In the past couple of weeks, several lawmakers have toured the school, Brinkley, the dean, said, including Republican House members John Blust, Julia Howard and Mitchell Setzer. Blust is an alumni of the law school.

“This has given us a chance to really do some great communicating about who we are and what we are trying to accomplish, and our needs,” Brinkley said.

Brinkley was appointed law school dean in 2015 after a career in private practice, working chiefly with corporate clients. A 1992 UNC law graduate, he was described by the head of the search committee two years ago as a “non-traditional candidate” — someone who did not come from academia — who could help prepare students for careers.

Brinkley describes UNC-trained lawyers as “the glue” of communities across North Carolina, contributing to the economy and helping local governments function. “We’ve played that role proudly, that public service role, for decades and decades,” he said. “We just try to remind folks of that.”

Alumni have been reaching out to legislators “in droves,” Brinkley said.

“We’re still working really hard to make our case,” he said.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

UNC School of Law

Founded: 1845

Dean: Martin Brinkley

Faculty: 75

Students: 675

Graduates include: Gov. Roy Cooper. Former Govs. Jim Hunt, Jim Holshouser, Dan Moore and Terry Sanford. N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin. Former Sen. John Edwards. President Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney, George H.W. Bush’s legal counsel C. Boyden Gray.

Centers: Center for Banking and Finance. Center for Civil Rights. Center for Climate, Energy, Environment and Economics.

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