Newly appointed University of North Carolina (UNC) System President Margaret Spellings has sided with what may fairly be described as an absurd and discriminatory state law, North Carolina House Bill 2 (H.B. 2), rather than take a stand for transgender students, which negatively affects the entire campus community. Spellings’ lack of leadership is apparent when compared with Duke University President Richard Brodhead’s decisive leadership that calls for a full repeal of H.B. 2. Brodhead did not hesitate to issue a statement along with Provost Sally Kornbluth and Duke University Health System CEO A. Eugene Washington saying Duke “deplore[s] in the strongest possible terms the new state law, HB2, that prevents municipalities from establishing laws that protect members of LGBTQ+ community and others from discrimination.”
In contrast, Spellings struck a blow to the UNC System by claiming to be “in a difficult position” with an “obligation to adhere to laws duly enacted by the State’s General Assembly and Government.” In the next breath, Spellings admits that the University has an obligation to follow federal law, but chooses to side with the State, declaring: “The Act remains the law of the State, however, and the University has no independent power to change that reality.” On the surface, this is a sheepish position at best, and one that certainly indicates Spellings is unfit to lead the UNC System. In substance, it calls into question the moral reasoning of her inability to act in accordance with the best interest of the UNC system’s LGBTQ+ community. Moreover, Spellings’ decision to side with discriminatory state law places the entire UNC System at risk of losing $1.4 billion in federal funds, including research grants and financial aid grants to students, without which it could not operate.
It’s increasingly clear that Spellings’ modus operandi is to defer responsibility to act as this plays out in the legal sphere. As cited in a May 4, 2016 U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division (DOJ) letter addressed to President Spellings, Chairman Bissette, and Mr. Shanahan, Spellings sent an April 5, 2016 Memorandum titled “Guidance - Compliance With the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act,” in which she instructed Chancellors of the UNC System to comply with H.B. 2: “University institutions must require every multiple-occupancy bathroom and changing facility to be designated for and only used by persons based on their biological sex.” It’s unclear how the “bathroom bill” will be policed given that most citizens aren’t in the habit of carrying an original birth certificate confirming gender identity on their person, as required by Part I of H.B. 2.
As a result, the DOJ stepped in to remind Spellings that Federal law prohibits UNC from discriminating against transgender individuals, which means that UNC is in violation of Federal law:
As a recipient of federal financial assistance, including financial assistance from the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs (“OJP”) and Office on Violence Against Women (“OVW”), the UNC system must comply with Title IX and VAWA. As an employer, UNC is also obligated to comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The letter served as notice that the DOJ finds that UNC is in violation of Title VII, Title IX, and VAWA and therefore sought compliance on or before May 9, 2016, whereafter the DOJ said it would take enforcement action. Despite this warning, Spellings continued to jeopardize the safety and security of transgender students and gamble with the UNC System’s fate.
As concerned faculty, students, and citizens nationwide may recall, this isn’t the first time that Spellings has been outed for discrimination. Indeed, there appears to be an established pattern of discriminatory remarks: “The nation’s new education secretary denounced PBS on Tuesday for spending public money on a cartoon with lesbian characters, saying many parents would not want children exposed to such lifestyles.” This particular public statement has raised many eyebrows.
Spellings issued a statement on April 11, 2016 after hearing from concerned students, faculty, and staff who interpret H.B. 2 as an “effort to single out individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity for ridicule or harassment.” The statement says: “It is apparent that our providing factual guidance on the requirements of the law has been misinterpreted by many as an endorsement of the law.” It also claims: “We will not tolerate any sort of harassing or discriminatory on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation,” which conflicts with the discriminatory language of H.B. 2 that is in question—language that Spellings has issued guidance to comply with.
However, the May 4, 2016 DOJ letter clarifies that: “Even if UNC has no current ‘process or means to enforce H.B. 2’s provisions,’ … the message to the UNC system (and reasonable inference by employees, students, and third parties) is that transgender individuals may not use facilities that correspond with their gender identity.” The DOJ says the “message conflicts with UNC’s obligations under Title VII, Title IX, and VAWA,” reemphasizing that “UNC is therefore discriminating against transgender individuals on the basis of sex and gender identity.”
Spellings’ failure to comply with federal obligations as requested by the DOJ by Monday May 9, 2016 is a critical move in the wrong direction that has significant consequences for the UNC System and statewide community. As U.S Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced in a press conference later that same day:
Today, we are filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state of North Carolina, Governor Pat McCrory, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina. We are seeking a court order declaring House Bill 2’s restroom restriction impermissibly discriminatory, as well as a statewide bar on its enforcement. While the lawsuit currently seeks declaratory relief, I want to note that we retain the option of curtailing federal funding to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina as this case proceeds.
No doubt, Spellings’ lack of leadership has increased the difficulty of the situation and will end up costing the University in several ways, including extra legal fees as “[board of governors] members agreed to search for counsel to represent the university in the federal lawsuit.” It will be interesting to see what impact this debacle has on student enrollment and faculty confidence as it plays out, too.
It's time for Spellings to show leadership and put an end to discrimination. So far, her actions indicate that she does not side with equality and justice and this has created undue financial and emotional stress. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in no uncertain terms that it’s time to end “state-sponsored discrimination against transgender individuals.” The UNC System deserves a president who stands against discrimination without hesitation. It shouldn’t take a federal civil rights lawsuit to enforce the dignity and respect of our fellow citizens.
Please sign the the petition: