The attorney general’s criticism landed as a top civil rights group challenged the legality of the court settlement university officials reached with the Confederate heritage group.
“This is a matter of grave public interest,” the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law wrote in a letter sent Wednesday to attorneys in the case and to Stein (D), including questions about adherence to legal, ethical and fiduciary duties by the university system’s board of governors.
“We’re approaching this with great urgency,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, because of “the fraud perpetrated on the court here. … The diversion of $2.5 million is money taken away from supporting students’ educations, and it fully supports and endorses the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ efforts to promote white supremacy. That is deeply troubling.”
Last month, University of North Carolina System leaders announced a resolution to an issue that had become a lightning rod on the state flagship campus: A consent judgment had been reached to permanently rid the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus of the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam. It was given to the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans along with $2.5 million from the university to fund an independent charitable trust to preserve the monument.
R. Kevin Stone, commander of the veterans’ group, said at the time he was ecstatic about the agreement because it would ensure the monument was kept in a place of honor. But students protested and faculty condemned the settlement and the way it was conducted, including the fact that the settlement had been signed by a university official days before the lawsuit from the veterans’ group was filed. Some even said they would prefer Silent Sam — which was toppled in 2018 by protesters who called it a symbol of racism — be returned to campus rather than give money that would benefit the group’s glorification of the Confederacy.
Stone has said his group does not promote white supremacy.
Laura Brewer, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Justice, said the state attorney general believes the $2.5 million for preservation of the statue “is an excessive amount of money that should instead be used to strengthen the university and support students.”
“Department of Justice lawyers played no role in negotiating the agreement,” Brewer wrote. “The Board of Governors hired outside counsel and negotiated this deal entirely on its own, sidelining our office.” The board of governors oversees the state’s public universities.
The department’s role was limited to advising the university and the state system whether the agreement was legal, Brewer said.
Legal experts have raised questions about the settlement, with one UNC-Chapel Hill law professor calling it legally inexplicable.
Ripley Rand, an attorney representing the board of governors in the matter, referred questions to spokesmen for the statewide system. The spokesmen did not respond to questions from The Washington Post on Wednesday.
C. Boyd Sturges III, an attorney representing the North Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, declined to comment on the letter from the civil rights group.
Kevin M. Guskiewicz, interim chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, made public a letter he sent to the president of the state university system president and to the board of governors chairman, sharing concerns he has heard on campus.
Last week, Guskiewicz told faculty that campus officials were not part of the negotiations. In his letter Wednesday, he wrote that his understanding was that none of the funds in the charitable trust could be used for the benefit or activities of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans group unrelated to the preservation of the monument.
“I join with others on my campus in stating that the values expressed by the [Sons of Confederate Veterans] are inconsistent with and antithetical to the values of the University,” Guskiewicz wrote.
He asked that system leaders ensure the money is used in compliance with terms of the settlement, and that system leaders consider providing more information to the UNC-Chapel Hill campus about it.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said the Confederate group’s lawsuit was based on “exceedingly faulty legal foundations — legal arguments that would be exposed as frivolous if they were tested through actual adversarial litigation.”
Other lawyers have raised questions as well. Hampton Dellinger, a lawyer and former deputy attorney general in North Carolina, said the settlement was inappropriate because returning Silent Sam to campus would violate federal law. “No federally funded college or university in 2019 could permissibly install or reinstall a Confederate monument and be in compliance with the Civil Rights Act,” Dellinger said.
He said there was no basis for the payment. “In addition, the fact that this payout was done without public notice and public input is also frustrating."
The settlement was “personally devastating,” said Erika Wilson, an associate professor of law at UNC-Chapel Hill, “like pouring salt into a gunshot wound.”
What’s at stake is bigger than what happened with the legal settlement, she said: “The university is at a moral crisis point.”