Two and half years ago, the UNC Board of Governors voted to fire widely respected UNC President Tom Ross.
The move by the handpicked board of the Republican legislative majorities came with no public notice and there was no reason given for forcing Ross to resign.
The board chair said after the meeting that Ross had been doing a wonderful job. But everybody in Raleigh knew the reason.
Ross’ firing was the beginning of the Republican assault on the university system with most of the focus on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, long derided by forces on the Right as a key center of progressive thought in the state.
This week brought another stage of that assault as a committee of the Board voted to forbid the UNC Center for Civil Rights from going to court to protect people’s rights, which is the core mission of the center founded 15 years ago by the late legendary civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers, a UNC Law School graduate.
The crusade to stop the privately funded center from protecting the fundamental rights of low-income people and poor communities was spearheaded by board member Steven Long, a former member of the board of the right-wing Civitas Institute, a group that supplies the foot soldiers and faux justifications for the ideological crusades being waged in Raleigh these days.
Long is a typical BOG member elected by the Republican General Assembly. He co-founded a group that has been instrumental in convincing the General Assembly to create a school voucher scheme to funnel public money to unaccountable private schools and religious academies. The head of the pro-voucher group is also a member of the board.
Long also led the charge to abolish the Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity run by UNC Law Professor Gene Nichol, an outspoken critic of Republican rule in Raleigh. Part of the current crusade is that criticism is not be allowed, especially from a university campus.
The News & Observer story about the committee vote to ban the Center for Civil Rights from litigating includes a picture of Long after the meeting with another board member holding his arm — Tom Fetzer, the former chair of the N.C. Republican Party.
The current board of governors is now as much an ideological body as it is a governing one.
And legislative leaders will not tolerate dissent, even within their own ranks.
It is no secret that Senate leaders had their own candidate in mind to replace Ross as president but the board chose instead to hire former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Several members of the search committee that chose Spellings were not reelected to the board by the General Assembly this year.
The board is also a rich source of political contributions and fundraising for legislators’ campaigns. One board member, James Holmes, even hired Rep. David Lewis, the powerful House Rules Chair, to work at his risk management firm.
It is quite a cozy club indeed and united in its efforts to remake the university system.
Spellings issued a statement after this week’s committee vote to cripple the civil rights center but declined to take a definitive statement on the decision.
She also recently penned an op-ed praising the funding of the UNC system by the General Assembly but neglected to mention the $660 million in “flexibility cuts” in the last six years or the $500,000 cut to the UNC Law School this session made just for spite in a year with a budget surplus of hundreds of millions of dollars.
This week’s committee vote to prevent the Center for Civil Rights from helping people across North Carolina is a travesty and as the Center’s staff attorney Elizabeth Haddix recently put it in a powerful column in the News & Observer, the ban on helping communities and families “directly contradicts the public service mission of the University.”
Now it is up to the full board to decide the fate of the Center but there is little doubt about the outcome. Never mind the university’s mission. This is not a reasonable debate. It is a crusade, remember.
The vote to limit public services from a public university comes the same week that the New York Times reports that the Trump Administration is considering going after universities that could be discriminating against white students.
Expect that to be next on the UNC Board’s agenda as the dismantling of a great institution continues.
One thing is not hard to figure out — what Julius Chambers would think of what is happening at the university he loved.
Chris Fitzsimon is founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.