Opinion

Time to rally to UNC center’s defense – Kirk Ross

Don’t care if you are from here or afar, it takes more than a light blue blazer to be Carolina.

You have to fight for the place, because, well, you’ll have to. The university was not put here to follow. It was put here to lead. That is an uncomfortable place, an uncertain place and at times a very hot, hellish place, the place where all the friction is happening, but there is no other place for it to be.

Most importantly, it is a very visible place. That is part of leadership, too, and right now we are in a moment when sight of backbone is an urgent priority.

The other night I waited up for the Senate’s budget until just a few moments until midnight, when it was published on the legislature’s web site. It came in 800 pages plus and was voted on after a day and a half. It was stuffed full of policy as well as spending targets and and tax cuts, the implications of which are still being sifted out now, more than a week and half after the Senate voted on it.

The night the budget went live, I had a cold, a headache and bad feeling scrolling through the provisions. It wasn’t long before I got to the university budget and saw that 30 percent whack at the law school.

As a reporter for this newspaper, I covered my share of university budgets and learned the subtleties of the process from masters like Bill Friday and Jay Robinson. This was not subtle at all. The N&O’s Rob Christensen aptly described it as taking a chainsaw to the law school.

The constitution of our state gives the legislature near unfettered authority to do what it wants to the state’s universities. It is constrained only by a loosely knit safety net of state and federal laws, accrediting institutions, the goodwill of the people and, in rare cases, a sense of shame.

The case of the law school budget is not one of those cases. But it is a good example of how not to negotiate a deal with a relatively unconstrained, all-powerful entity.

In recent years, as the legislature and the UNC system leadership has grown more conservative, the law school has become a target. Its poverty-focused center, led by Gene Nichol, an outspoken critic of the legislature’s policies toward the poor, was shut down two years ago. This year, the Center for Civil Rights is in the crosshairs because it has the temerity to sue organizations and entities that deprive North Carolinians of their civil rights.

Unfortunately, the administration at Carolina did not immediately rise to a vigorous and spirited defense when the push to shut down the center started gaining momentum last year. You can read that as either acquiescence or trying to take the defense behind the scenes. Either way, it was an abysmal failure and the university is now faced with both a demand for the end of the center along with fighting the cut during budget negotiations.

What also appears to be lost on the people at the top is how this is going to look. This is not the John Doe Center for Nothing, it is the UNC Center for Civil Rights. Shutting it down now is not going to happen in a vacuum. The rest of the country is not going to compartmentalize the decision in the way some have tried to. It will play into the into image of the state as being led by venal, vindictive people.

The racial aspects of the decision won’t be swept away, either. You may have noticed that the U.S. Supreme Court recently highlighted a few items the legislature overlooked when drawing up district lines and voting laws. Those items include the Voting Rights Act and the equal protection clause in the 14th amendment.

There are some things that can’t be finessed behind the scenes and some fights the university needs to go ahead and have right out in the open, not because it will win, but because it is supposed to be a champion of such things.

Too much of what guides this state is happening behind close doors. Light, liberty – it’s not that complicated.

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at kmr@rossalmanac.com 

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