RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A committee studying alternative paths for a University of North Carolina center that offers legal help to the poor found no options that would allow the center to continue the full breadth of its work while also satisfying conservatives who oppose how it operates.
The committee appointed by the chancellor of the Chapel Hill campus examined five options for changing the course of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which prominent civil rights attorney Julius Chambers founded in 2001. The committee's report found none that would allow the center to keep representing clients the way it currently does while satisfying critics, who say the center's courtroom work doesn't fit with the education mission of the country's oldest public university.
The chancellor convened the study at the behest of the state Board of Governors, which sets policy for the 16-campus system. Conservatives on the board want to strip the center of its ability to file lawsuits, removing its biggest weapon.
Center supporters have said that changing the center's mission or moving it out from the umbrella of the UNC-Chapel Hill law school would diminish its work.
Only one alternative — renaming the center after Chambers and defining its educational role more precisely— allows the center to continue its work while keeping its structure largely the same, the report says. And that doesn't address the concern that opponents have regarding a center affiliated with UNC suing other government entities. The center has, for example, sued public school systems on behalf of clients alleging discrimination.
Other alternatives assume the groups that fund the center, which receives no state money, would continue to do so if the center is no longer affiliated with UNC, the report says. "It would not be fair to assume that the center can survive these challenges, and the UNC-CH committee does not want its identification of these alternatives to be seen as an endorsement of their viability," it concludes.
The Board of Governors meets later this month, when the education committee is scheduled to discuss the center's future. The full board could consider the education committee's recommendation in September.
Chambers, who endured firebomb attacks of his home, office and car in the 1960s and 1970s as he fought segregation, founded the center and served as its first director. The report cites his legacy repeatedly.
Aside from the name change, the committee proposes four separate alternatives: change the center into a law school civil rights clinic; outsource litigation with ongoing support; outsource litigation with no ongoing support; or move the center into a nonprofit structure not associated with the university.
Each has disadvantages for the center, for its opponents or both, the report says.
The report saves its strongest language for the final alternative, saying that if the center is no longer associated with UNC, "the university would lose an important historical connection to the legacy of Julius Chambers, to the civil rights movement and to its own journey to address the effects of racial discrimination. ... Julius Chambers was one of, if not the, pre-eminent civil rights lawyer of his generation, and his legal work helped transform North Carolina away from a history of segregation based on race."
The report didn't change the mind of attorney Joe Knott, a member of the Board of Governors' committee that will recommend whether the center should continue litigation.
"The law school is not a law firm," he said. "We should not represent clients, and we should not be doing litigation."
The center's director, Ted Shaw, said the situation is all the more troubling considering the 2015 closure of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.
"First they came for the poverty center, now they're coming for the civil rights center," he said. "I don't know who's going to be next if they do this, but as far as a matter of academic freedom, this should trouble everyone."
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