Rob Christensen: GOP crafts a message to UNC with a chainsaw

Published 11:44 pm Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The state Senate took a chain saw to the University of North Carolina law school this month, cutting nearly a third of the state appropriation for one of the nation’s oldest law schools.

The official explanation from the Republican-controlled Senate is that we have too many lawyers in North Carolina. But not even the teenaged pages in the Senate believe that.

The GOP is sending a message: It thinks the law school faculty is liberal leaning, it doesn’t like the Center for Civil Rights, and it particularly doesn’t like Gene Nichol.

Nichol has been a repeated target of Republicans. Nichol, a UNC law school faculty member, has a talent for getting under the GOP’s skin with his sharp-edged newspaper columns accusing the Republican legislature of sucking up to the rich and piling on the poor.

First the UNC Board of Governors — appointed by the legislature — killed the law school’s mostly privately financed Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity that Nichol headed.

Because Nichol is a tenured professor, the legislature could not go after his job. So they did the next best thing; they went after the UNC law school budget.

In 2015, the Senate cut $3 million from the law school budget. Democratic Sen. Mike Woodard called it the “Gene Nichol Transfer Amendment.” The money was restored in the House.

This month, the Senate was at it again, this time cutting $4 million, which represents a 30 percent cut. The measure is now being considered by the House.

It is hard to know whether the Senate seriously wants to slash the law school’s budget or is just sending a message — the equivalent of hitting it over the head with a two-by-four.

Certainly, diversity should be a consideration in faculty hires — whether racial, gender or ideological. The law school faculty should include not only our best legal minds, but some effort should be made to make sure it reflects the state, including conservative scholars.

But slashing the budget proposal by 30 percent seems a ham-handed approach at best.

UNC law school, founded in 1845, has been built up over generations of North Carolinians. Since the 1920s, the highly regarded law school has been one of the reasons why UNC has been known as one of the nation’s best public universities.

Five of the last 10 governors are graduates — Roy Cooper, Jim Hunt, Jim Holshouser, Dan Moore and Terry Sanford. Four of the seven N.C. Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice Mark Martin, have passed through its doors.

Many graduates have gone on to public life, including former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney, George H.W. Bush legal counsel C. Boyden Gray, former federal judge John J. Parker, former Gov. O. Max Gardner, and N.C. Chief Justices Henry Frye, Susie Sharp, and William Bobbitt.

More than that, about 10,000 lawyers have graduated, providing leadership in nearly every town in North Carolina, often serving in the legislature.

Even without the proposed cuts, the law school is struggling to keep up with its sister schools. In 1990, U.S. News and World Report ranked the UNC law school the 20th best in the country, while in 2017 it was ranked 39th. (UNC’s rankings have often gone up and down like yo-yos depending on funding.)

The law school is still rated highly by its peers (19th) and by lawyers and judges (20th), but is now 104th in the country in what North Carolina spends for it law students and 157th in scholarship money, according to U.S. News & World Report.

In other words, the law school’s reputation is still intact, but the school is not being funded as a top tier institution.

How long its reputation can withstand threats of large-scale funding cuts and outside political pressure remains to be seen.

The law school is not the only area where political payback seems to be driving the public policy process.

The Senate also voted in its budget to eliminate funding ($653,671) for emergency judges, apparently because some legislators don’t like some of the judges.

Since 1970, North Carolina has used retired superior and district court judges to help relieve the work load of the courts. There are 42 emergency superior court judges and 73 emergency district court judges.

This whole system of emergency judges was designed to save the state money.

None of this is about finance. The state is relatively flush this year, and sums in question are modest.

This is about settling political scores, or sending messages, or perhaps even making sure the UNC law school faculty adheres to the legislature’s version of political correctness.

Rob Christensen covers politics for The News & Observer of Raleigh.