UNC system chairman: 'We don't discriminate against anybody'

Posted May 10, 2016 8:46 p.m. EDT
Updated May 17, 2016 6:11 p.m. EDT

— University of North Carolina system leaders insisted Tuesday that the 17-campus system doesn't violate anyone's civil rights, but yet they find themselves trying to negotiate a tricky position as the state and federal governments battle over the controversial House Bill 2.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued the UNC system and the state on Monday, alleging that House Bill 2 violates Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act and the Title IX education gender-equity law by requiring transgender people to use public bathrooms that match the gender listed on their birth certificate and doesn't allow them to choose the bathroom where they feel most comfortable.

"We don't discriminate against anybody," Louis Bissette, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, said following a nearly three-hour, closed-door meeting of the board to discuss the lawsuit.

"Our anti-discrimination policies are in effect, as they have been for years and years and years," Bissette said. "There's been no change in that, and there will be no change in that."

"We've not violated any provision of Title IX or Title VII as it relates to House Bill 2," UNC President Margaret Spellings said, agreeing with Bissette that no changes are planned in any campus' nondiscrimination policies and noting that House Bill 2 doesn't spell out how to enforce the bathroom regulations or any penalties for violators.

UNC leaders, however, wouldn't take a stand on the issue, saying they want to focus on their education mission while the courts settle the debate. Their next step is to hire a lawyer to defend the Justice Department suit.

"You can imagine, if you're a citizen and you have a state law and a federal law, and you don't really know which one is controlling at a certain point in time, it's very frustrating that you don't know which one to abide by," Bissette said.

The lawsuit puts about $1.4 billion in federal funding to the university system, including financial aid and research grants, at risk if campuses are found to be out of compliance with nondiscrimination laws.

"The board and I are completely committed and very clear that we can't operate this place without federal funding, and we would not put that at risk," Spellings said.

The Justice Department hasn't threatened to withhold any federal funding yet, she said, noting that system administrators and lawyers continue to discuss how to resolve the issue with government lawyers.

"I don't think they have any greater interest in poor and minority students losing financial aid than we do," she said.

The 10 Republican U.S. House members from North Carolina sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary John King on Monday, demanding assurences by Friday that no federal education money would be pulled from the UNC system.

"We strongly believe that any move to withhold federal (education) funding from North Carolina is without legal merit and an unprecedented overreach by the federal government," the House members wrote in the letter.

Students and faculty at area UNC campuses said Tuesday that they feel squeezed by the House Bill 2 battle.

"This is a huge ripple effect. This is dropping a boulder into a pond," said Brett Chambers, an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Mass Communication at North Carolina Central University. "We're going to all feel the pain if this plays out in a negative way and the money is withdrawn. I don't think the DOJ would have put that on the table if they weren't going to play that. You don't pull a gun if you're not willing to shoot."

Spellings has said that the UNC system plans to comply with both state and federal law, and Michael Gerhardt, the Samuel Ashe Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law at the UNC School of Law, said that balance is difficult in the case.

"HB2 is one thing it has to consider complying with, but federal law really trumps that, and it has to make sure it's complying with federal law at all times," Gerhardt said. "It's going to head toward the federal government prevailing. There's no question, when it comes to federal law, the federal government determines what federal law is."

UNC System Student Body President and student board member, Zack King, said he hopes the discussion about House Bill 2 will continue at the university.

"I know that students and student leaders have really been calling for a stand against HB2," he said. "I am very confident the board is heading in the right direction when it comes to this. I think we are headed, hopefully, for a resolution."