The University of North Carolina system was already in an awkward spot, caught between competing federal and state directives in a tense standoff over transgender rights.

After the state passed a controversial “bathroom law” which requires, along with other provisions, people to use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificates, the federal government argued that it violates civil rights protections and has ordered North Carolina officials not to comply. State leaders sued the federal government, and the U.S. Department of Justice countered with a lawsuit against the state, including the university system.

Now, not only is the public university system trying to navigate unsettled law and cultural norms, but it has another problem: Who is going to pay the lawyers?

On Friday, the chairman of the board of governors sent a letter to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, asking him to pay for the private counsel which the university system has retained to guide them through this mess.

Cooper, the Democratic nominee for governor, has said he would not defend the North Carolina law, which he opposes.

In the letter, W. Louis Bissette, Jr., the chairman of the board of governors, wrote, in part, “Although the North Carolina Attorney General ordinarily represents the University and its officials in litigation, your office has declined to provide legal representation to the University in this matter.

“As you can appreciate, the University is in need of representation by legal counsel in these matters so that it may continue its operations and focus on its mission of educating students…” so it has hired outside counsel. And the university incurs legal expenses, “even while the University continues to pay your office for legal services.”

He asked the attorney general’s office to begin setting aside funds “and work with us to ensure that the expenses are paid in full.”

“We have a lawyer – he’s called the attorney general,” said Thom Goolsby, a former Republican state senator who serves on the board of governors. “By law he’s supposed to represent us. He’s a constitutionally independently elected office holder — he’s sure expected to do his job. It doesn’t look like that’s happening.”

A spokeswoman for Cooper’s office responded with a statement Friday night. “The Attorney General would encourage the UNC Board of Governors to help fight HB2 by urging the governor and legislature to repeal the law which would quickly solve the problem.”

A spokeswoman for the university system, Joni Worthington, issued a statement which read, in part,

Fees for outside legal services will be paid from a combination of non-state funds and state appropriations.
The University remains in regular contact with the Department of Justice about ways to constructively resolve its inquiry into the University’s compliance with federal civil rights laws.
The UNC system has not changed its nondiscrimination policies and practices in response to the passage of HB2, and campuses have taken no action to prevent individuals from accessing facilities based on gender identity.
UNC campuses have long worked to accommodate the needs of students, faculty and staff from all backgrounds and to ensure our campuses are welcoming and inclusive for all.

Worthington also added, in an email, that the attorney general acts as outside counsel for all state agencies including UNC unless he declines to do so. “In those circumstances, the Governor may authorize the employment of other counsel and has done so in this case.  I am not aware of another instance in which the Attorney General has declined to represent the University, but there have been instances in which the University has asked and received approval from the Attorney General to be represented by other counsel.”

The North Carolina law immediately sparked national scrutiny and protests, with supporters saying it provided welcome privacy protections and opponents calling it discriminatory.

Here is the full letter from the chairman: