UNC-Chapel Hill provost promises best effort to protect Center for Civil Rights

UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Jim Dean
UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Jim Dean UNC-Chapel Hill

UNC-Chapel Hill’s administration will do its best to protect both the legal training and the advocacy work of the School of Law’s clinics and centers, including its Center for Civil Rights, Provost Jim Dean promised faculty.

Addressing a recent meeting of the Faculty Council, Dean said a team in the law school, working to a tight deadline, is crafting answers to questions about the Center for Civil Rights posed by a UNC system Board of Governors committee and individual board members.

When it’s done, a group that includes the provost, university General Counsel Mark Merritt, law school dean Martin Brinkley, Center for Civil Rights Director Ted Shaw and “some outside people who are alumni or friends” of the law school “will do the final polishing of the answers” before sending them on, Dean said.

“We’re going to do our best to try and make sure the legal training that our clinics and centers offer continues to be offered, and that the Center [for Civil Rights] can continue to advocate for the rights of all people in North Carolina, particularly underprivileged people in North Carolina,” Dean promised the council.

Dean was alluding to a study ordered by the system board’s education policy committee, which in turn was responding to demands from some members of the board for a move to bar UNC law-school centers like Shaw’s from representing clients.

The push is led by board member Steve Long, who has criticized the center’s involvement in a school-desegregation lawsuit in Pitt County. He argues that UNC-sponsored centers and institutes shouldn’t be in the business of suing other government agencies. But there have been hints that he’s also pursuing the issue because of behind-the-scenes pressure from state legislators.

System officials have forwarded eight questions from the education policy committee to UNC-Chapel Hill. Among other things, they ask how other public-university law schools “provide clinical experiences for their students,” whether they pursue litigation, and whether there are “academic freedom issues that should be taken into account.”

A separate set of queries from Long, who’s not on the committee, sought detail on the center’s cases and won-loss record over the past 10 years, the involvement of law-school students in them, the teaching loads of Shaw and other center-affiliated professors, and its ties with the state chapter of the NAACP.

Long draws a distinction between centers like Shaw’s, which are more faculty-driven, and law-school clinics that often give students their first experience in arguing cases in front of a judge.

But Dean’s comments signaled that campus officials aren’t necessarily accepting that distinction, and the chancellor of another system university, Frank Gilliam of UNC-Greensboro, in March told the committee he sees it as “a bit of a semantic exercise.”

Law schools and their faculty in fact take on all sorts of controversial cases, individually or through centers or clinics.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school, for example, last year honored professor Luke Everett for winning a U.S. Supreme Court case that challenged the state’s handling of electronic location monitoring of sex offenders. Everett represented the client in that case pro bono, via his family law firm.

At nearby Duke University, a law school clinic has been involved in one of the most controversial cases imaginable, with a team of professors and students helping the defense of the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, N.C. A&T State University alumnus Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Those things follow from the law-profession ethos, embedded in N.C. State Bar regulations, that everyone in a legal dispute is entitled to zealous advocacy.

But the query about academic freedom may highlight a potential conflict with that principle, as the system’s official guarantee of academic freedom for professors and students speaks specifically to “teaching, learning, research, discussion and publication,” wording that on its face doesn’t necessarily address service work.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg