Stuck on Ideology

It isn’t every day that a law school gets a chance to build its reputation by creating a center in a rising area of legal research. North Carolina Central School of Law had such an opportunity—a grant to become one of only a handful of law schools devoted to the study of state constitutions.

But it was not to be. Faculty and alumni hostility killed it.

On September 27, former Supreme Court justice Robert Orr withdrew his proposal for a Center for the North Carolina Constitution at the Durham law school. This is the latest in a series of events illustrating the rocky road that outside donors must travel when they want to give money to a university. A new Pope Center paper, “Games Universities Play,” by Martin Wooster, compiles numerous examples of this unfortunate phenomenon from around the country.

Every such failure is unique, of course, and this controversy had its distinctive features. At first it looked promising; there was strong support from the dean of the law school and a high level of faculty respect for Orr, the proposed director. He taught at the law school for eleven years and has just ended a six-year term on its Board of Visitors. But as in other, increasingly familiar, stories, the proposal foundered on the shoals of faculty opposition on ideological—or, one might say, prejudicial—grounds.

Orr’s proposed center would have focused research on the North Carolina constitution. He envisioned the center’s becoming “the central repository for historical information and records on the N.C. Constitution, its development and application.” He also wanted the center to provide education programs around the state and serve as an information resource on state constitutional issues.

Orr thought a focus on the state constitution was particularly appropriate for NC Central. NCCU is a historically black public university (although white students now make up roughly 40 percent of the law school’s population). According to Orr, the state’s current constitution is based on the North Carolina constitution initially adopted in 1868. That was during the short-lived Reconstruction period, when the legislature had thirteen African-American delegates. Thus, Orr thought that the center would be a good place to launch the 150th anniversary celebration of that constitution.

So what happened? A problem arose because of the source of the center’s funding. Initially, it would have been supported by $600,000 from the John William Pope Foundation, headed by James Arthur (Art) Pope. The Pope Foundation evokes strong feelings in North Carolina; on many campuses, those feelings tend to be negative, as was the case among NCCU’s generally liberal faculty and alumni. So, while the center had some initial support, it developed powerful opposition.

The project faced two gauntlets; it had to be approved, first, by the law school’s faculty curriculum committee and, second, by the larger group of law school voting faculty members. The issue never came to a vote, but outraged emails circulated among the faculty, some of them from alumni. Orr decided that the antagonism wasn’t worth it.

In his letter to Dean Raymond Pierce, he wrote that there have been “unfortunate misapprehensions about the governance and mission of such a Center.” All things considered, he wrote, “my time and efforts can be best spent elsewhere.”

The hostility to Orr’s proposal was clearly based on political ideology. Although the Pope Foundation has a broad philanthropic portfolio that includes organizations such as the North Carolina Symphony, Carolina Ballet, the Raleigh Fine Arts Society, and the Hospice of Wake County Foundation, those apparently count little because Art Pope is an active supporter of Republican causes. That doesn’t sit well with many faculty and alumni of the law school. From the evidence on the North Carolina College Finder site, it is clear that the university’s faculty and trustees are heavily Democratic in political leaning (although it is possible that the law school does not reflect these figures).

Alumni may have been more vocal than the faculty. “I want the Law School to continue its storied tradition of producing not just lawyers, not just legislators, but social engineers who fight for the rights of under-served and under-represented populations,” wrote 2008 graduate Sarah Jessica Farber in a letter to Dean Pierce (her comments were distributed through the website Blue NC). “I question the School’s ability to continue that bold mission if its funding is tied to Pope monies….”

Faculty opposition was not monolithic. James P. Beckwith Jr., a senior faculty member at the law school, wrote me, “I do not know whether the proposal would have been approved by the voting faculty. If it had been voted down, it would have sent a message that diversity of thought and free inquiry are not highly valued at the law school.”

But Dean Pierce acknowledged in an email that “expressions of alumni concerns with the proposed institute’s connection to Art Pope” contributed to the “lengthy approval process that disturbed Robert Orr.”

In an interview, Pierce indicated that he remains interested in Pope funding, but not necessarily for a center devoted solely to the state constitution. He says that the law school faces three major challenges: staying affordable, keeping up its bar-exam pass rate, and getting good jobs for graduates. Thus, his highest priorities would be projects addressing those goals. Pierce would especially like outside funds for legal issues covered by the bar exam, such as contracts, tort, the federal constitution, etc.

“I have no hesitation whatsoever in continuing to examine ways in which the Pope Foundation could be a source of funds to support the North Carolina Central University School of Law,” he wrote in an email. “After all, our law school has benefited in the past from Pope Foundation funds.” The foundation supported a lecture series that brought to the campus such luminaries as Supreme Court chief justice John Roberts and former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. It also funded a  “Mural of the Constitution” on campus, a work of art by Michael Brown that depicts major documents related to the U.S. Constitution.

North Carolina Central School of Law is doing pretty well in achieving the goals stated by Pierce. In 2008, a Pope Center paper said that it was the only “low-cost option” among North Carolina law schools. In 2009, the magazine preLaw named it the “Best Value” law school in the country, but the school fell off the list in 2010, after its job placement rate fell from 87 percent to 82.6 percent. The school’s bar passage rate in 2010 was 76.8 percent, according to U.S. News and World Report.

The Center for the North Carolina Constitution headed by Justice Orr would have added a research component that would strengthen the school’s prestige and expand its areas of scholarly interest. Many law schools would covet such a center. But it does not appear to be in the law school’s future. In effect, NCCU chose to remain one-sided politically rather than advance in scholarship.

(Editor’s note: The John W. Pope Center is separate from the Pope Foundation, although we receive the majority of our funds from the foundation.)