Orange County

Panel votes 5-1 against future litigation for UNC Center for Civil Rights

A UNC system Board of Governors committee said Tuesday the public university system should bar the UNC Chapel Hill law school’s Center for Civil Rights from taking on new clients.

The 5-1 vote with a single abstention set the stage for a final vote by the full Board of Governors next month that the center’s managing attorney, Mark Dorosin, now concedes his organization is likely to lose.

“I am not sanguine about the prospects,” Dorosin said after watching Tuesday’s debate before the board’s education-policy committee. “I think that this is a fait accompli.”

One of the committee members on the majority side of the vote, N.C. State University alumnus Jim Holmes, noted that the proposal goes against the advice of campus leaders like UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt and law school dean Martin Brinkley.

“It’s obvious that the chancellor and others throughout the system are not supportive of this,” said Holmes, who in 2015 praised the work of the Center for Civil Rights during a prior debate about its future. “It’s really important that this board own that this is our direction.”

The measure responds to complaints from BOG member Steve Long about the center’s having represented people in racially charged land-use, environmental, inheritance and school-desegregation disputes in eastern North Carolina.

As drafted, it includes a grandfather clause that would allow the center and its staff to continue working on its existing cases. But it otherwise forbids it from supplying legal counsel to third parties, or hiring anyone to. Also, it nominally applies to centers and institutes throughout the UNC system, but the Center for Civil Rights at UNC-CH is the only one that now engages in litigation.

Folt, Brinkley and other officials have noted that the law schools throughout the country increasingly try to train students by giving them hands-on litigation experience.

Without the center, the Chapel Hill campus does “not have in place any easy path” to offer the School of Law’s students training in civil-rights work, Folt said.

She added that the university “does stand to suffer reputational damage” if the board goes through with the proposal.

But Long, a lawyer and UNC-CH alumnus who is not a member of the education policy committee, dismissed her warning as “a common refrain when faculty doesn’t like an idea.”

‘Stick to its knitting’

Two other supporters of the move, committee and BOG members Joe Knott and Marty Kotis, signaled broader disagreements with the strategy of Folt’s campus and its law school.

Kotis, a real-estate developer and UNC-CH alumnus, indicated that he thinks lawsuits in general are a waste of money and that people should look for other ways to resolve conflicts. Putting the center out of the business of representing clients is “simply about reducing the amount of litigation out there,” he said.

Meanwhile, Knott, a lawyer and UNC-CH alumnus who ran unsuccessfully for N.C. attorney general in 2004, appeared to question the hands-on training approach promoted by the American Bar Association and other groups.

“If we’re going to have a law school, which we must and I’m all in favor of it ... it needs to stick to its knitting,” Knott said.

“A law school is one thing; a law firm is another thing,” he continued. “Law firms have clients. Schools have students. Schools and students do one thing. Law firms and clients do another.”

Law school centers should exist only to help students “evaluate and study and discuss and debate cases that have been decided” so they might “come to a deeper understanding of the philosophical roots behind each case and the cultural implications they have,” he said.

Knott’s stance was of a piece with the skepticism he’s voiced in other committee debates about the involvement of the UNC system’s 16 campuses in any sort of community service work, despite state law’s clear statement that the system’s mission includes teaching, research and service.

‘Reputational risk’

The opposing vote on the committee Tuesday came from its chairwoman, Anna Spangler Nelson, a Wellesley and Harvard alumna who’s the daughter of former UNC system President C.D. Spangler.

She said the proposal intervenes in something that “would ideally be handled at the campus level,” and agreed with Folt that the debate “is posing a reputational risk to the university which transcends the specific circumstances here.” She added the campus can find “a practical middle path,” perhaps by restyling the center as a clinic more firmly rooted in the law school that can continue to engage in legal work.

Nelson leaned there on a distinction between centers and law clinics that Long has tried to draw, one that other observers like UNC-Greensboro Chancellor Frank Gilliam have argued is largely semantic. Dorosin likewise saw no refuge in it.

“Just wait and see,” Dorosin said. “When a case upsets some friend of the Board of Governors, or someone ideologically, then clinics will be the next people on the chopping block.”

The president of the system Faculty Assembly, UNC-Wilmington mathematician Gabriel Lugo, told the committee that for him, there’s little difference between the law school’s training strategy and the practices of medical schools “that require clinical training” or business schools “where it is preferable for the students to have participated in one or more internships” before receiving their degrees.

The dispute risks portraying UNC’s campuses to their peers and the national media as being not just on the wrong side of civil rights, but “on the wrong side of student success,” Lugo said.

The abstention came from committee member Darrell Allison, an N.C. Central University graduate and UNC-CH law school alumnus who said he’s “conflicted” about a proposal he can’t be for or against.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg