Staunch opposition from students and alumni helped quash a proposal last week to bring a constitutional law center to the N.C. Central University law school. The project—controversial because of its ties to wealthy Republican strategist Art Pope—had been pitched to the law school by Bob Orr, a former state Supreme Court associate justice and director for the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law (NCICL). After scrutiny by the media, school officials, students and alumni, Orr pulled the proposal—a day before faculty was scheduled to meet on the matter.
In a letter to the law school's dean, Raymond Pierce, Orr said he had a change of heart. "For the past several months it has become increasingly clear that my time and efforts can be best spent elsewhere," Orr wrote. "Starting a Center at the Law School is now clearly inconsistent with the direction I prefer to go in my career. Therefore, I am respectfully withdrawing the proposal I submitted."
With $600,000 of start-up funding from Pope's family foundation, Orr wanted to launch a center for the study of the N.C. Constitution at the law school and become its inaugural director. According to the proposal, the money for a staff position, a part-time executive director and initial programming would have been paid over three years.
In an interview last week, Orr said he started talking to Pierce about forming a center at NCCU last spring. "This thing has been dragging on far longer than I was comfortable with, and I didn't see any immediate resolution of it," Orr said. "So I just made a personal decision."
Orr was an adjunct law professor at NCCU for more than 10 years. Few law schools teach courses in their state constitutions, which are not covered by state bar exams, said NCCU law professor Irv Joyner. But state constitutional law is "an important area that's being woefully underserved," said Orr, who teaches a class on the subject at the UNC law school.
Orr's explanation for retracting his offer alluded only vaguely to pressure on the NCCU law school to reject it. "While I have been appreciative of the positive comments I have received about the proposal, there have also been unfortunate misapprehensions about the governance and mission of such a Center," Orr wrote.
Upon learning of the proposal in August, law school alumni and other members of the NCCU community sent emails to law school faculty arguing against the project, citing Pope's conservative record as a legislator and activist. Among Pope's accomplishments: supporting the members of the Wake County school board who eliminated its diversity policy; sitting on the board of Americans for Prosperity, which is credited with sowing the tea party movement in several states, including North Carolina; and spending millions of dollars to help elect Republican legislative candidates. Many of those elected candidates worked this year to restrict abortion and advance a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage in North Carolina. Pope and his political largesse are the subject of a profile in The New Yorker to be published Oct. 10. (It's online on the magazine's website this week.)
Although the NCICL describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public and litigating constitutional issues, Pope is the treasurer of NCICL and has served as chairman and vice chairman of its board of directors. The institute is just one of several initiatives and think tanks established with Pope capital—a pool of millions from the family's Variety Wholesalers company and its chains of discount stores.
Orr said he has answered many queries about how the center would have operated. But questions and doubts among law school faculty apparently lingered. The law school needed to be "enthusiastically supportive" of the idea, Orr said. Overwhelmingly, that was not the case.
Greg Doucette, president of the NCCU Student Bar Association, said that most students either rejected the proposal outright because of its ties to Pope, or echoed faculty concerns about the level of administrative control the law school would have at the center. But Doucette says the proposal was unfairly hobbled by the controversy.
"What bothers me is the message the firestorm has created, that if you're tied to a Republican, don't come to Central," Doucette said. "But that's not what we're about."
Joyner, the law school professor, says political concerns didn't factor into the discussion. "The notion that that was somehow meshed into our consideration of this proposal is erroneous," Joyner said. "And I don't want that message going out."
Members of the law school's faculty curriculum committee considered the proposal at two meetings, said committee member Lydia Lavelle, an assistant law professor at NCCU. When the group met on Aug. 24, it brought up numerous questions.
"Even given what [opposition] we heard from everyone, there were still some basic questions that we would have had for any program, such as how it would sustain itself after the first three years," Lavelle said. "I had some concerns with the proposal. I'm not talking about who the money was coming from. I have concerns about any program that might be part of the school, that we don't have a greater say in how the program's run."
The curriculum committee was supposed to receive answers to those questions at a meeting Wednesday, but Orr had already withdrawn the proposal.
Asked whether he was surprised by the level of NCCU resistance, Orr said: "The only thing I'm surprised is that people didn't actually pay any attention to the substance or merits of the proposal. The only people who are getting the short end of this are the students in the school, and it didn't seem that the opposition seemed to care about it."
Orr says the media, including the Indy, should have been reporting weeks ago about the details of the proposal, but no reporter from any professional news organization contacted him. Subsequently, "the people making conclusions were woefully uninformed of the facts," he said. [Editor's note: The Indy did publish the original proposal, in its entirety, for readers on Aug. 25.]
Although Orr is no longer willing to serve as director for a center at NCCU, Pope is still willing to put up the money, Orr said. Courses on the state constitution would benefit students, Joyner said. But with the law school operating on $2 million less than it had last year, he said, courses not pertinent to bar exams would be a luxury, not a necessity.
Doucette, who said he is one of few Republicans in his class, added that considering the Republican-dominated Legislature's control over the UNC system and its budget, the NCCU community should have been more diplomatic in its reception of Orr's idea—the implication being that GOP lawmakers could slash NCCU funding over the university's reluctance to accept the money.
"You're not winning any friends by sticking your finger in the eye of Art Pope," Doucette said. "He's not going to become any less conservative based on whether we take his money. He's just going to take his money somewhere else."