Chapel Hill, N.C. — In recent weeks, the University of North Carolina system Board of Governors has proposed, and in some cases enacted, sweeping changes, from slashing the size of administrative offices and moving them out of Chapel Hill to limiting the scope of the Center for Civil Rights in the UNC School of Law.
More than half of the board also signed a letter expressing concern over how President Margaret Spellings and Board of Governors Chairman Louis Bissette addressed the controversy over a Confederate monument on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus.
Some people in the university system cite such moves as evidence that the board is making decisions based on politics instead of advancing education.
The 28 voting board members are appointed by the Republican-dominated General Assembly, and roughly three-fourths of the board are registered Republicans.
"I believe that the Board of Governors is being hyper-partisan and is being motivated by politics more than ever in the history of the Board of Governors," said Wayne Goodwin, chairman of the state Democratic Party.
The Center for Civil Rights represents poor clients free of charge in employment, housing and other discrimination cases, which sometimes results in lawsuits against local governments. Some Board of Governors members who voted to prohibit the center from engaging in litigation said the university shouldn't be suing other governmental bodies and should focus more on education.
"There’s no hiding that this policy came from a place of ideological opposition to the work that the center does. That’s been plain since the beginning," said Elizabeth Haddix, a lawyer with the Center for Civil Rights.
Haddix said several board members plainly told her and other center staff that lawmakers put them on the board to end the center's advocacy work.
"The message that they were sending was, 'We have the political ability to do this and to take these actions,' and they’re doing it," she said. "Partisan politics, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, really shouldn’t matter at all when what we’re talking about is academic freedom."
Pearl Burris-Floyd, a Republican board member, said that's simply not true. She voted against many of her Republican colleagues to support the center's ability to litigate.
Spellings and Bissette weren't available for comment Thursday, and a UNC system spokesman noted comments they made last week defending the vote on the Center for Civil Rights, saying they want to prioritize education, not litigation.
Goodwin said the letter criticizing Spellings and Bissette, both Republicans, for seeking input from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper amid protests over the "Silent Sam" statue on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus also shows divisiveness within the Republican majority on the board.
"This is not only a crisis, it's an embarrassment to our state and an embarrassment to the generations that helped build up the UNC system to be what it is," Goodwin said.