Paper-classes court win underscores UNC’s subordination to state

CHAPEL HILL — A court ruling in UNC-Chapel Hill’s favor in the so-called “paper classes” scandal underscored that the university is very much a creature of the N.C. General Assembly, with little autonomy or power of its own.

Issued this week by U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Biggs, the ruling cut short a lawsuit against the school filed by former football player Michael McAdoo and former women’s basketball player Kenya McBee. Both allege they were denied a proper education for being channeled into phony classes in the former Department of African and Afro-American Studies.

Biggs said the federal courts have no jurisdiction because the U.S. constitution’s 11th Amendment bars lawsuits against a state by residents of a different state. McAdoo’s from Maryland, McBee’s from South Carolina

But to say that, Biggs first needed to agree with UNC’s lawyers that the university’s an arm of North Carolina’s state government. That conclusion, she said, flows from earlier court rulings, and from the university’s relationship to the legislature.

There, “despite enjoying some level of autonomy in carrying out day-to-day operations, [the] UNC [system] and its constituent institutions remain subject to the control and veto power of the General Assembly,” said Biggs, a former N.C. Court of Appeals judge who’s been on the federal bench since 2014.

The ruling comes amid grumbling from faculty, at Chapel Hill and other system universities, about what they see as legislative meddling in university affairs.

Biggs stressed that the university’s powers are delegated to it by the General Assembly, and can be “revised or withdrawn at any time.”

Lawyers for McAdoo and McBee were trying to argue that UNC-Chapel Hill’s Athletic Department is essentially autonomous, enough so to get around the 11th Amendment’s wording.

But the judge said it’s not, as its money has to go into state accounts, and neither the campus, the UNC system or the General Assembly could force a private booster like the Rams Club to pay a court settlement in the case.

Biggs noted that she had to rule on those points because the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — the federal appeals court with jurisdiction over North Carolina and other mid-Atlantic states — has never “definitively held” that the university is “an arm or alter ego of the state,” even though it’s treated it like one.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg