In 2015, over faculty opposition (more here), the state defunded the University of North Carolina Law School's Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, which Gene Nichol quickly re-launched as the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund with private donations. The state now is considering banning the law school's Center for Civil Rights and other academic centers from providing legal representation to clients in litigation:
The Herald Sun, Proposal Would Bar UNC Schools From Providing Legal Representation:
A proposal headed to the UNC system’s Board of Governors would bar public university centers and institutes in North Carolina from providing legal representation to clients in any sort of litigation.
The broadly worded measure, submitted to the board’s education policy committee in a memo credited to member Joe Knott, would almost certainly affect organizations like the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law’s Center for Civil Rights. The Center for Civil Rights has provided support, counsel or other aid in a variety of cases involving school desegregation, voting rights and compensation for victims of the state’s former forced-sterilization program.
System policy currently allows that, but Knott’s cover memo said the board should decide that “filing legal actions against the state or city and county governments does not come within the primary purpose of centers and institutes.”
But the attached proposal, drafted in the style of the ones already included in the system policy manual, goes much farther than barring participation in the sort of civil matters that have drawn criticism from some board members previously. It forbids centers and institutes from filing “a complaint, motion, lawsuit or other legal claim,” in its own name or for others, “against any individual, entity or government.” Moreover, they wouldn’t be able to “act as legal counsel to any third party,” employ people who do, or arrange for someone’s representation.
As worded, it would apparently forbid the system’s law schools, at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University, from setting up or operating centers or institutes to help out with such things as the Innocence Project.
The Herald-Sun, Dean: UNC Civil Rights Center Won’t Launch New Cases Pending Board of Governors Review:
The dean of UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school has signaled he won’t allow its Center for Civil Rights to “initiate or join any new litigation” pending the outcome of a Board of Governors policy debate that may put it out of the lawsuit business entirely.
Dean Martin Brinkley’s decision leaves the center free to “focus on its existing cases and research and community-service work while we are reviewing this matter,” said Anna Spangler Nelson, board member and chairwoman of its education-policy committee.
Inside Higher Ed, Proposed UNC Policy Would Keep Academic Centers from Taking Part in Litigation:
[T]he center’s supporters say it is the target of a proposed UNC system policy change that would prevent academic centers and their employees from filing legal claims, acting as legal counsel or representing others in complaints, motions, lawsuits and other legal actions. Such a policy change would have a devastating impact on academic freedom, as well as on the privately funded center’s work and its ability to prepare students for careers as lawyers, those supporters argue. It could also have significant ramifications for other university centers and functions across the 16-university system, they believe.
Those behind the change retort that it is intended to rein in academic centers that have dragged the university system into advocacy. They want to return North Carolina’s public institutions to a focus on academics, they say.
The proposal has inflamed an already tense atmosphere around public higher education in North Carolina, where many faculty members and students worry that legislators and members of the Board of Governors have taken to meddling in university operations. On Feb. 18 the UNC system’s Faculty Assembly sent a note to the system’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, complaining of board and legislative actions it said apparently violated accreditation standards.
Actions cited included legislators imposing a plan to drop tuition to $500 per semester at three system campuses and stripping North Carolina’s governor of the ability to appoint some state university campus trustees. They also included the Board of Governors deciding to close three campus research centers, including the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, in 2015 amid complaints the centers were being used to attack Republican politicians. The existence of that center, like the civil rights center, has been defended locally by those championing free speech and expression and advocacy on behalf of the disenfranchised.
The Center for Civil Rights came under scrutiny at the time of the research center closures in 2015. It survived, but several members of the Board of Governors were sharply critical of it at the time. Those members included Steve Long, who said the center has an ideological basis and it should not be allowed to take part in lawsuits against the state or other governments.
Long submitted the new proposal to prevent university centers from participating in litigation for discussion at a Feb. 23 committee meeting. The new policy would need a committee vote and a vote from the full Board of Governors to pass. That could not happen before May.
When reached by telephone Monday, Long declined to comment. But a memorandum he submitted to the Board of Governors committee that will review his proposed policy spells out several reasons he is seeking the change. First among them is that initiating lawsuits against governments violates UNC’s mission of teaching, research and service to the state. ...
Gene Nichol is a professor of law at UNC School of Law and the school’s former dean. He also had a hand in starting the civil rights center, and he was the director of the poverty center that the Board of Governors decided to kill in 2015. Back then, he was outspoken in his arguments against closing the poverty center, writing that the process leading up to its closure was a charade triggering censorship and demeaning academic freedom.
Nichol is just as plainspoken in analyzing the proposed policy that would affect the Center for Civil Rights. The move is ideological, he said. He went on to note that the Board of Governors has not proposed any policy that would affect the UNC School of Law’s Center for Banking and Finance, which examines banking policies and regulations.
It makes no sense to prevent a law school from practicing advocacy, Nichol said. “We are schools that teach advocacy — that’s a central part of our mission,” he said. “‘Advocacy’ is a slippery term. You can’t define something as being political by whatever a hyperpoliticized member of the Board of Governors says is political. The carelessness of it is remarkable. It’s typical of what’s happening in North Carolina. They’re willing to do destruction of all institutions across the board.”