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Why a student leader says academic freedom is at stake in debate on UNC Center for Civil Rights

Elizabeth Adkins, UNC-Chapel Hill’s new student-government president, argues that the Board of Governors would undermine the reputation of the UNC School of Law if it forces the school’s Center for Civil Rights to get out of the litigation business.
Elizabeth Adkins, UNC-Chapel Hill’s new student-government president, argues that the Board of Governors would undermine the reputation of the UNC School of Law if it forces the school’s Center for Civil Rights to get out of the litigation business. UNC-Chapel Hill

The UNC system board would risk the reputation of UNC Chapel Hill’s law school and the state’s public universities in general if it bars law-school centers and institutes from representing clients, the president of UNC-Chapel Hill’s student government says.

The move would amount to “demanding that professors teach a certain way, advocate a certain way and advise a certain way, removing instructional power from the experienced educators and [putting it] into the hands of government bureaucracy,” said Elizabeth Adkins, who in taking office in April became a voting member of the campus trustees.

Adkins spoke up via a public letter on the student government website, published just after the July 4 holiday.

She argued the system board could wind up “crippling one of Carolina’s most prestigious graduate schools” by restricting its ability to offer students hands-on experience with civil rights litigation.

The ban would not just affect the decisions of prospective students interested in civil rights law, but signal to “every applicant, independent of their desired field of study, that this university system does not support innovative and experiential learning endeavors,” she said.

“Today it is limits on the Civil Rights Center but with such a precedent, what is to stop future boards from dictating that medical centers can no longer perform certain procedures?” she asked, rhetorically. “Or that the history departments can only publish certain volumes of work?”

The system board is currently on track to decide in September to go along with the representation ban, proposed initially by member Steve Long. Its education policy committee is scheduled to debate a recommendationAug. 1.

Two members, Marty Kotis and Thom Goolsby, tried to accelerate that timetable Tuesday, asking in committee for an immediate vote on a recommendation to the full board. But the rest of the panel blocked the attempt to change the schedule, said Lou Bissette, chairman of the Board of Governors.

Long has argued that UNC-sponsored centers and institutes shouldn’t be in the business of suing other arms of the government. The center’s participation in a series of cases in eastern North Carolina, including a desegregation claim against the Pitt County Schools, looks like the trigger for the move.

UNC-CH officials say it’s theoretically possible to reorganize the Center for Civil Rights to answer the objection, but all of the options are risky because it’s not clear donors would continue to give it financial backing after a change in how it’s organized, campus General Counsel Mark Merritt said.

Adkins’ public letter is the second move in recent weeks by a campus student-government president in the system to weigh in on a major political issue.

In June, her counterpart at East Carolina University, La’Quon Rogers, marshaled support from Adkins and student leaders on nine other UNC campuses to support a N.C. General Assembly proposal to study what constitutes the fair treatment of college athletes

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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