In North Carolina, university-backed political advocacy may be on the way out

Last week, a working group from the UNC system’s Board of Governors drew national attention and student and faculty protest after it announced plans to discontinue three of the system’s 237 centers and increase oversight of thirteen others. The centers slated for closure are East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity, NC Central’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change, and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, which was founded in 2005 by then-U.S. Senator John Edwards.

The board group’s recommendations are aimed in part at encouraging centers to bolster their outside financing (thereby reducing state funding) and motivating chancellors and boards of trustees to take a more active role in monitoring centers’ activities. But the guiding principle for the changes is a desire by the board to ensure that academic centers are actually academic and scholarly entities, rather than partisan advocacy groups pursuing predominantly political and social goals. An example of the latter is UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Civil Rights, which is one of the thirteen centers identified by the board as needing increased supervision.

Of the 237 centers across North Carolina’s 16 public universities, the civil rights center is the only one that engages in litigation—costly litigation ultimately paid for by taxpayers. In a recent federal court case, for example, the center’s aggressive discovery tactics caused the Pitt County Board of Education to incur more than $500,000 in legal fees. In that case, the center, representing the Pitt County Coalition for Educating Black Children, argued that the education board’s student reassignment/redistricting plan failed to adequately account for racial diversity and students’ socio-economic status. The district court ruled in favor of the education board. The plaintiffs, however, are now challenging that decision in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The civil rights center’s staff attorneys receive state salaries and its initiatives are sponsored by numerous left-wing advocacy groups. Its director, Ted Shaw, receives an endowment from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, which has provided funds to such highly politicized organizations as ACORN, Chris Fitzsimon’s NC Policy Watch, and the Southern Environmental Law Center. Shaw is a former director of the NAACP’s legal defense and educational fund and served on President Obama’s 2008 transition team. 

The center’s website says that it is a “university-based hub of civil rights advocacy” with a “progressive civil rights agenda.” Its mission is to “use community-based impact advocacy and legal education and scholarship to advance strategies that secure social, economic and environmental justice for low wealth, minority families and neighborhoods.” But the center doesn’t actually produce scholarship—it produces lawsuits. And because of its association with UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school, the center can use cheap labor (i.e., law students) to make burdensome Freedom of Information Act requests and discovery demands.

In recent years, it has sued several counties in addition to Pitt County. For instance, last year an “environmental justice” suit it had filed against Brunswick County resulted in the state’s counties (which purchase third-party “insurance” for such matters) paying a $155,000 settlement and Brunswick County paying hefty legal fees. At issue in the case was the county’s plan to expand a landfill near a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood. The plaintiffs had claimed the decision was based on long-standing “institutional” racism and had sued under the North Carolina Fair Housing Act.

Yet there is no shortage of public interest firms that engage in such “progressive” legal advocacy and that are willing to take on such cases. The North Carolina Justice Center, Legal Aid of North Carolina, and Pisgah Legal Services, for example, have similar missions. By singling out the civil rights center, working group members were not necessarily criticizing its work, but rather the appropriateness of having an ostensibly academic center pursuing partisan advocacy—and suing the state in some instances—at taxpayer expense and with the implied support of the university system. Referring to the center’s suit against Pitt County’s education board, board member Frank Grainger said, “This should not be happening.”

Board of Governors member Steve Long, who served on the working group and spoke about Chapel Hill’s civil rights center at the meeting, said that the center “engages in political activity and political bias. Its list of allies and supporters are exclusively members of the Democratic party and funders of liberal causes.” He also said that, in spite of its name, the center’s focus is too narrow and “does not encompass the full range of civil rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of press, the right to assemble, the right to keep and bear arms, etc.” In sum, said, Long, the center is “really not an academic center at all…it’s an advocacy group.”

Although the working group did not recommend closure for the Center for Civil Rights, it wants the flagship in Chapel Hill to conduct an in-depth review of the center’s activities and ensure that it’s in compliance with new rules drafted by the working group, which will apply to all centers. An update to the UNC Policy Manual, which will be approved by the full board this Friday, stresses that university employees, while on duty, are prohibited from “using the authority of [their] position or University or center” to engage in political activity.Political activity” is defined as “actions directed toward the success or failure of a candidate for public office, political party, or partisan political group…”

Chancellors will also be required to ensure that center directors and staff comply with Internal Revenue Code regulations related to the political and legislative activities of charitable, tax-exempt organizations (the legal status of centers and institutes).

At the board’s working group meeting, student protesters carried signs that read “Dear BOG, we all know that you’re ALL WHITE but represent the DIVERSITY of your students!” and “Dear BOG, don’t target centers that serve our community!” The civil rights center’s managing attorney, Mark Dorosin, was also in attendance. A police officer was on the verge of removing him from the premises after he interrupted the meeting, but a board member told the officer that he could stay.

Dorosin, who received $94,000 from the state of North Carolina in 2013-14 (he teaches one course at the law school), told the group that its depictions of the center were “filled with inaccuracies” and that it receives no state funding. Dorosin is right that the center’s operating budget and legal agenda is funded by outside sources. His teaching salary and the salaries of his fellow staff members, however, are paid by the state of North Carolina. The center also receives a number of in-kind payments which represent state support. It uses university facilities, has access to the law school’s resources, and gets a boost from having “UNC” in its title.

Of course, the civil rights center is not the only controversial center on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. On the same day that the working group held its meeting, the Carolina Women’s Center hosted an event at which Tatyana Brown, a feminist and self-described political activist, spoke to a group of female students. The center had advertised the lecture by saying that:

This conversation…will explore practical, elegant, repeatable tools for addressing and dismantling systemic oppression—particularly for those of us who know we’ve inherited certain social advantages at another group’s expense (hint: there’s a good chance this applies to you), and who want to do something to create change.

“That shows how the women’s center gets involved in a lot of social advocacy,” said Steve Long in an interview with the Pope Center. The women’s center is one of the thirteen centers identified by the working group as needing additional review and oversight. “We’ve had a lot of conversation about this center,” said working group chairman James Holmes, Jr., who added that he’s “encouraged and excited” to see the chancellor and others identifying possible changes.

Lost in much of the media coverage regarding last week’s announcement is the fact that the working group approved roughly 90 percent of the centers and institutes. At NC State, for example, every center and institute was validated. And with the exception of the Center for Civil Rights, all of the centers that will be reviewed more closely in the coming months are centers that don’t generate much outside financing and rely on general fund money. The North Carolina legislature’s Appropriations Act of 2014 stated that the “Board of Governors and the campuses of the constituent institutions shall consider reducing State funds for centers and institutes…by up to $15 million.” The working group’s recommendations, which have been deemed draconian by some commentators, won’t come close to reaching a fraction of that suggested cut.