Higher Ed, News

UNC Board of Governors silent on Silent Sam, calls on legislators to pass state budget

In its first full, in-person meeting since its controversial Silent Sam settlement, the UNC Board of Governors made no comment on the issue or the lawsuits and legal actions stemming from it.

Citing pending litigation, board Chairman Randy Ramsey and Interim UNC System President Bill Roper declined all questions on the matter.

Instead, at its Friday meeting, the board took aim at another contentious political issue: the state budget stalemate.

The UNC Board of Governors unanimously passed a resolution urging state lawmakers to pass the currently proposed state budget – the subject of a months’ long stalemate between Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican legislators who have been unable to overturn his budget veto.

The legislature adjourned this week without resolving the budget stalemate, with Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger saying it’s possible no new state budget will be passed this fiscal year or next.

The board’s resolution lists the ways in which the current budget would be beneficial to the system and the potential harms of continuing without a new budget.

The resolution goes on to say that the proposed budget would provide an approximate four percent raise to faculty and staff over the next two year while the absence of a new budget “hurts UNC System institutions, faculty, students, and the communities we serve, and threatens the ability of the University to serve the citizens of the State and contribute to the economic vitality of North Carolina.”

The board’s resolution “strongly encourages all elected leaders who support and value the world class higher educational systems inNorth Carolina to move swiftly to enact House Bill 966 and approve with the provisions originally included inSenate Bill 354. Further, we call on all boards of trustees to create and approve a concurring resolution as soon as practical.”

Board member Marty Kotis pushed for the resolution — something he said had been discussed during the budget fight but seemed essential with the legislature adjourning without a solution.

Forget Rs and Ds,” Kotis said. “This is about the university system right here. This really isn’t a political issue.”

The resolution does urge lawmakers to pass the budget promoted and passed by Republican lawmakers rather than to compromise and find a solution that would allow the state to expand Medicaid, as Gov. Roy Cooper and Democrats in the General Assembly would prefer. But Kotis said that’s because the proposed budget is very advantageous to the university system and it’s not clear what a different budget would mean for the system.

“This one happens to favor the university system very well,” Kotis said. “But it’s a budget – it’s about spending money and there’s only finite resources. If you don’t pass this and someone else wants something else, things can shift. If it changes and there are other priorities, I’d hate to see that.”

Kotis said he hopes a Democratic Senator will break with with the party and vote with Republicans to overturn the governor’s veto.

I am hopeful there will be one Senator out there that puts the budget over politics and supports the university,” Kotis siad. “Maybe that’s because I’m more of a Maverick and I break ranks every day. But this is important for the university and impacts so many areas throughout the state. There are so many wonderful things for so many areas and so much that will be hurt if we don’t pass it. So I would hope there would be one person.”

Commentary, Education, Higher Ed

UNC law professor: Silent Sam deal an “investment in falsehood”

Just before the holidays, five members of the UNC System Board of Governors defended the Board’s decision to pay $2.5 million to the Sons of Confederate Veterans to house and display the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans are purveyors of what historians call the myth of the Lost Cause – the story that “the preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight” what they call “the Second American Revolution.” The group insists that “the war was not fought in order to keep African Americans enslaved.”

It stands to reason that these are the historical claims Silent Sam will bolster in any museum they build with the $2.5 million.

The five Board members said that this was the best deal they could strike to try to resolve what they saw as “a deeply divisive and personal issue.”

“Divisive?”  I suppose the centrality of slavery to the Confederate cause remains divisive in some circles.

But “personal?”

There is nothing remotely personal about this issue.

To see why, think about a few hypothetical $2.5 million settlements the university might reach with others to help them tell their story.

  • The university settles litigation with a soft drink company by setting up a fund to support a series of conferences about how sugary sodas do not contribute to the obesity epidemic.
  • The university settles litigation with an anti-vaccination group by setting up a fund to finance a social media push against childhood immunizations.
  • The university settles litigation with a religious institution by funding a geology museum proving that no rock can be more than 6,000 years old.

How would the public react to any of these expenditures?

With near-universal outrage, and for good reason.  However “divisive” the causes of obesity, the merits of vaccinations, and the age of the Earth may be in some quarters, these university expenditures would be serving untruth.  They would be doing the opposite of what a research university does, which is to study things carefully, using rigorous standards of inquiry, and thereby to increase knowledge and uncover truth.

There is nothing “personal” about whether the perpetuation of slavery was central to the Southern cause in the Civil War.  It is something that brilliant historians – including many in the UNC System – have devoted their lives to documenting.

This is one of the things that is so deeply disturbing about the decision of the Board of Governors to pay a huge sum to an organization to preach the myth of the Lost Cause.  It’s a $2.5 million investment in falsehood.

To watch this unfold is devastating.

But it’s nothing personal.

Eric Muller is the Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor of Law in Jurisprudence and Ethics at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Commentary, Higher Ed

UNC’s Silent Sam settlement, a bad deal executed very poorly

The Daily Tar Heel, a student-run newspaper, is in the midst of a serious role reversal with the adults over at the UNC Board of Governors.

That much is clear following the paper’s inherently logical suit charging the UNC board violated our state’s open meeting laws when they negotiated a $2.5 million settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans to take Silent Sam off their hands, in addition to a $74,999 payment intended to keep its protesters off an already simmering campus.

The paper’s management corporation is asking the court to nullify the agreement, an outcome virtually everyone not currently seated on the UNC Board of Governors or in legislative leadership would prefer at this point.

Boards have the luxury of discussing such matters with their attorneys in private, although it’s another matter for several board members to design and sign a deal in private without even a public notice.

The idea was bad, and the execution was even worse.

Fittingly, WRAL’s Capitol Broadcasting Corp. slammed the university system board in an editorial Tuesday.

The courts should drop this dismal deal, and the UNC Board of Governors—one of North Carolina’s leading lights for humiliation these days—should sit the next few plays out.

From the editorial:

The reporters and editors at the Daily Tar Heel in Chapel Hill have been doing their job in examining the Silent Sam consent agreement between the University of North Carolina, the UNC Board of Governors and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It’s a good thing. They are digging to answer the basics: Who did what, where, when and why.

The DTH has also been working to uncover the how. Did the procedures the UNC Board use follow the state’s Open Meetings Law?

The DTH investigation, so far, raises disturbing questions about a lack of basic due diligence by the board and the university.

The newspaper, a non-profit student-run publication that’s been around for 127 years, has gone to court to nullify the consent agreements. The two deals with the Sons of Confederate Veterans that pays the group $74,999 to not protest on campus and $2.5 million to shelter and display Silent Sam were reached “in total secrecy in violation of the Open Meetings Law.”

In addition, the lack of transparency leads to wonder why and how could a university pay anyone to give up their 1st Amendment rights? It goes against the most basic precepts for freedom of inquiry that quality universities stand for.

Will the university now pay other groups to stay off campus? This deal sets a terrible precedent.

The most basic due-diligence on the part of UNC-Chapel Hill and the UNC Board of Governors clearly has been neglected.

The DTH revelations are raising questions about whether the key party to the deal, Sons of Confederate Veterans, violated tax and campaign spending laws. State Attorney General Josh Stein, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall who oversees non-profits — along with the state Revenue Department and state Board of Elections, all must look into these serious matters.

The rush to approve anything, at any cost, to get rid of the Silent Sam issue has done just the opposite. In fact, Superior Court Judge Allan Baddour, who signed the initial consent judgment and order is reexamining his approval and will be holding a hearing on Feb. 12 to further look into the deal.

It is time for the courts and regulators to say enough-is-enough. Terminate the deal. University officials should be ashamed of themselves.

Higher Ed, News

Attorney Hugh Stevens: UNC Board of Governors “egregiously and constantly” violated law

Hugh Stevens.

This week DTH Media, the non-profit that operates UNC-Chapel Hill’s Daily Tar Heel student newspaper, has sued the UNC Board of Governors over the controversial Silent Sam settlement.

The suit alleges the politically appointed board, which governs the UNC System, negotiated and made decisions about the settlement for months without providing information to the public or the media — including minutes of meetings and correspondence — in violation of the North Carolina Open Meetings Law.

Attorney Hugh Stevens of the firm Stevens Martin Vaughn and Tadych, PLLC is representing DTH Media in the suit. He spoke with Policy Watch Wednesday about the importance of the suit and what his clients hope to achieve.

The suit asks that decisions made in meetings the suit claims were held in violation of the open meetings law be found null and void — including the settlement by which the UNC System would give the Silent Sam Confederate monument to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, along with $2.5 million in a non-profit trust.

Legal experts say voiding the agreement would be an uncommon outcome — but Stevens said that may be because suits over the open meetings law aren’t as common as suits over the withholding of public documents, for instance.

“In our part of the state, a great many media companies and some advocacy organizations have pursued public records cases quite avidly,” Stevens said. “But the open meetings law is really more of a law that tells people what they are supposed to do than one that provides a lot of effective remedies. I can’t speak for anyone else except to say the opportunities have not come up all that often.”

Asking that the decisions be nullified is important in a case where such important decisions were made without public knowledge or input, Stevens said.

“Under our open meetings law, that’s really the only meaningful remedy available,” Stevens said. “You can’t throw someone off the board of governors. You can’t have them fined. The remedies written in are quite limited.”

It isn’t that there aren’t open meetings law violations happening every day, Stevens said — but they’re often difficult to document and prove under the constraints of the law as written.

“There are reasons why this remedy hasn’t been put in place very often,” Stevens said. “One is that you have to act quickly. There’s a statute of limitations of 45 days from the time that you learn of the action [that broke the law]. That’s daunting and unusual. As a consequence there haven’t been very many cases where people have sued to try to get that remedy. They’ve instead said, ‘Well there’s nothing we can really do about it now…but maybe we can get an injunction, to get them to comply with the Open Meetings laws in the future.'”

With such a high profile and controversial case as the Silent Sam settlement, Stevens said, that hardly seems enough. Board members and the UNC System’s own lawyers have publicly outlined the secretive nature of the negotiations, in which even some board members were not given all the details about the negotiations or the agreements that came out of them.

The public outcry against both the secrecy and the settlement that came of it has been so large, Stevens said, that it can’t be ignored or minimized.

“This time the violations were so egregious and so numerous — if this isn’t the case in which to ask a court to do this, what is?” Stevens said.

Suits that seek to change the behavior of public bodies in the future are themselves valuable, Stevens said.

“I think what the law has done and the cases that have been brought in the past have done, is to effect behavior,” Stevens said. “For example, I often cite some public bodies — one good example is the Raleigh City Council. When we look at it, they are assiduously following the law. Maybe that’s because they got sued over it years ago and it changed their behavior.”

In the case of the UNC Board of Governors’ settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Stevens said, that simply isn’t enough.

“It seemed like this was an instance wherein the open meetings law has been violated so egregiously and so constantly that if you aren’t going to try to enforce it here, when will you?” Steven said.

 

Higher Ed, News

Daily Tar Heel sues UNC Board of Governors over Silent Sam settlement

The DTH Media Corporation, the non-profit that operates UNC-Chapel Hill’s Daily Tar Heel student newspaper, has sued the UNC Board of Governors over the controversial Silent Sam settlement.

The suit, filed Tuesday, alleges violations of the North Carolina Open Meetings Law in the way the board approved deals that led not only to the University system giving the Silent Sam Confederate monument and $2.5 million to the Sons of Confederate veterans but further paying $74,999 to the group to secure an agreement that it would not use Confederate flags in on-campus protests.

“Both agreements with the SCV were conceived, negotiated, approved and executed in total secrecy in violation of the Open Meetings Law,” the suit states. “Owing to the defendants’ multiple violations of the Open Meetings Law, neither the plaintiff nor the public knew or could have known about either transaction until the afternoon of November 27, 2019, when the individual defendants disclosed it in an op-ed piece published by The News & Observer.”

The suit asks the court to “declare null and void, and set aside, certain actions taken and agreements entered into by defendants The University of North Carolina and the University of North Carolina Board of Governors in violation of the Open Meetings Law.”

The suit comes after Orange County Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour last month rejected a legal intervention into the Silent Sam settlement by students and faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill, but said he would be re-examining several parts of the settlement. That will include whether the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the group the UNC System gave $2.5 million and the Silent Sam Confederate monument, had standing to sue the university system in the first place.