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Friday, September 30, 2011

Constitutional law center withdraws controversial NCCU proposal

Posted by on Fri, Sep 30, 2011 at 3:01 PM

NCCU School of Law
  • NCCU School of Law

A controversial proposal to bring a center for the N.C. Constitution to the N.C. Central University law school is now off the table.

The proposal was withdrawn in a letter Tuesday from Bob Orr, a former state Supreme Court justice and director for the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law. In the letter to NCCU School of Law 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 in the letter (PDF). "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."

The letter alluded only vaguely to the controversy brewing in recent weeks surrounding the proposal to locate a center for study of the state constitution at the law school in Durham, with Orr as the inaugural director. Orr was an adjunct law professor at the school for more than 10 years.

"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. In an interview Friday, Orr added that he's answered questions about how the center would have operated, but they apparently lingered.

Orr said he originally started talking to Pierce about forming a center at NCCU last spring, but that the process has dragged on much longer than he expected, and because of other priorities, he decided he no longer wanted to be involved. Both in his letter and by phone, Orr said that the law school needed to be "enthusiastically supportive" of the idea. Overwhelmingly, that was not the case.

Alumni of the law school and other members of the NCCU community sent letters and emails to law school faculty against the proposal because its initial three years of funding would come from the Pope Foundation—an organization led by former Republican legislator and conservative activist Art Pope. (See one flier passed out at NCCU, PDF)

On its website, the NCICL describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about and litigating constitutional issues. But Pope, a prominent funder of conservative issues and candidates, is the treasurer of NCICL and has served as chair and vice chair of its board of directors. Among Pope's credits: supporting the members of the Wake County school board who eliminated its diversity policy; sitting on the board for Americans for Prosperity, which is credited with sowing the tea party movement in several states, including North Carolina; spending large amounts of time and money 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 will be the subject of a profile in The New Yorker magazine next week.

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 were concerned about the level of control the law school would have over the center that was being proposed.

But Doucette says the proposal, which would have given NCCU $600,000 to cover three years' operating costs for the center, was stunted by the controversy surrounding it.

"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."

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, they generated 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 withdrawn the proposal the day before.

When asked whether he was surprised by the level of resistance raised by students and others from the NCCU community against the proposal, 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.

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 reticence 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."

This story originally stated the curriculum committee generated questions at a Sept. 14 meeting; it was Aug. 24.

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