Editorial: A University Reins in Its Own Agitators

American universities are out of control. Tuition rises even as the quality of teaching sinks and the value of a degree falls into question. Students assault speakers and suffer no punishment. Others are accused of crimes and condemned without evidence or due process. All the while, curriculums are infested by politicized cant and crank ideologies.

The failures of American higher education are so varied and so appalling as to make one wonder if our institutions are any longer able to govern themselves. But here and there are signs of hope. Consider the effort by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to rein in one of its most obnoxiously politicized organizations.

At issue are the political and legal activities of a UNC Law School enclave called the UNC Center for Civil Rights. The center thinks of itself as a tireless advocate for the poor and minorities, but its main activity over its 16-year history is suing state agencies and local governments.

The center’s clients have included black parents opposed to a rural county’s school assignment plan and residents of a neighborhood opposed to a nearby landfill. Recently it filed an amicus brief opposing the state’s voter ID law. In the last 10 years, the center won no cases on the merits but did force occasional settlements. One North Carolina school board was sued by the center over school boundaries alleged to be racially discriminatory. The school won in court, but a board member called the case “a complete waste of time, money, and energy.” The school had to divert $500,000 from a fund for textbooks to pay its legal bills.

In September, the UNC board of governors voted 24-3 to ban academic centers from entering into litigation. “I don’t really believe that a UNC entity ought to be filing litigation against other parts of our government—our cities, towns and state,” the board’s chairman said with impeccable common sense. This month, UNC ousted the center’s two attorneys, both state employees. Supporters naturally cast the move as an affront to civil rights, social justice, and human decency.

Everybody deserves a chance to have a grievance heard in court, but there are plenty of organizations doing that work already—the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and the Legal Services Corp., not to mention big private law firms that take on such cases at no charge.

UNC’s move comes just two years after the university shut down another agitating boondoggle—the law school’s Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity—for similar concerns about its political activities. It was founded in 2005 by former Democratic senator John Edwards after the first of his two failed presidential campaigns.

At a time when American higher education seems mainly interested in disgracing itself, we’re encouraged to see that at least one prestigious university’s board of governors is capable of actually governing.