The University of North Carolina intends to comply with a new, widely criticized state law banning people from using public bathrooms and changing facilities that don’t correspond with their biological gender. But Margaret Spellings, the system’s president, stressed on Friday that doing so “is in no way an endorsement of this law.”
In a conference call with reporters, Ms. Spellings said she was “absolutely” worried about the implications of the law, particularly “what it might suggest with respect to the culture we would be engendering on campuses.”
The law, enacted last month in response to an ordinance in Charlotte, N.C., protecting gay and transgender people, raises difficult questions, she said. Chief among them: “Is this a state that’s unwelcoming of people of all kinds?" she said. “This particular law suggests that might be the case." On the potential consequences for UNC, she said, "I think it sends a chill throughout this institution for staff, faculty, and student recruitment.”
Her comments came as the state continues to face a national backlash against the law. Several private colleges have condemned it. Duke University, for instance, issued a statement saying that “we deplore any effort to deny any person the protection of the law because of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Carefully Worded Statements
Reacting to the law has become the first significant challenge for Ms. Spellings since she took office, five weeks ago. After her appointment last fall, she touted her political credentials and her ability to rebuild a fractured relationship with the state legislature as the assets she’d bring to the job.
Her response has reflected the difficult task she has of trying to toe the line with lawmakers while making clear that she and other system officials have concerns about the law. She issued a memo to the system’s chancellors on Tuesday clarifying what the law requires UNC institutions to do. Many observers took that document — whose subject line was “Guidance - Compliance with the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act” — as a sign of Ms. Spellings’s support for the law.
A handful of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, issued a joint statement on Thursday: “It’s incredibly disappointing that the University of North Carolina has concluded it is required to follow this discriminatory measure at the expense of the privacy, safety, and well-being of its students and employees, particularly those who are transgender.” The state's ACLU chapter is part of a coalition challenging the law’s constitutionality in federal court.
Several UNC institutions have issued carefully worded statements about the law. Philip L. Dubois, chancellor of the Charlotte campus, addressed Ms. Spellings’s memo in an email to the campus on Friday, saying it was his priority “to ensure that this campus is considered a safe and welcoming place for everyone” and linking to the university’s list of single-occupancy, gender-neutral restrooms.
In a statement released late Friday, Carol L. Folt, chancellor of the Chapel Hill campus, and other top officials there said they oppose the new law, but admitted they must comply with it, "while taking practical steps to lessen discomfort and distress." The statement also noted other problems, beyond the personal, that the new law had spawned: "conferences that will no longer send delegates to North Carolina and our campus; concerns and a pause among some prospective students, faculty, researchers, and staff; current and prospective donors who are signaling a reconsideration of their gifts; grants and relationships with businesses that are now in jeopardy."
“Public institutions are in a difficult position,” said Carol Quillen, president of Davidson College, a private institution in North Carolina. “President Spellings likely did what she thought she had to do. She’s clearly said that she would not have wished for this law.” Ms. Quillen added that Ms. Spellings "has one of the hardest jobs in the world.”
Among the state’s higher-education leaders, Ms. Quillen has taken one of the most vocal stands against the law. “This law flies in the face of some of the values that we hold most dear here,” she said. “Strategically, I also think the law damages the state. North Carolina has an incredibly progressive education tradition, and I worry about the continuation of that legacy, given what seems to be blatantly discriminatory legislation.”
Ms. Quillen took to Twitter on Friday to pose questions about the law’s language and ask students, faculty and staff members, alumni, and others to engage in a conversation about it.
So, the law harms all women by treating us as subordinates & limiting our rights. The law harms our most at risk youth. WHO DOES IT PROTECT?— Carol Quillen (@carolquillen) April 8, 2016
“I find the law extraordinarily difficult to understand,” she told The Chronicle. In her view, the statute can be read as undermining the rights of women and members of many other communities. “If that’s the case, then we as a society really need to dig in against this law and fight back.”
Ms. Spellings has drawn criticism for comments she made about the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community during her tenure as U.S. secretary of education and in her first news conference after being named North Carolina’s president. On at least two occasions, she referred to gay, bisexual, and trangender identities as “lifestyles.”
But she emphasized on Friday that the state has a longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusivity. “We want to maintain that full, open kind of culture and climate in our institutions,” she said. “Anything that undermines that is of concern to me.”
Speaking With Legislators
Thomas C. Shanahan, senior vice president and general counsel for the North Carolina system, said during the call that campus officials could continue to take steps to ensure that transgender people feel welcome. “Efforts have long been in place to accommodate transgender students, faculty, and others,” he said. The law doesn’t ban single-occupancy gender-neutral bathrooms, for instance, and most UNC campuses have such facilities, Mr. Shanahan said.
Ms. Spellings said she had been speaking with legislative leaders about the law. “They have indicated that they’re open to consideration of our issues,” she said. Would she push for a change in the statute once lawmakers reconvene at the end of the month? “Potentially,” she said, though she didn’t specify what that change might be.
In her memo, she clarified that the law doesn’t affect the system’s nondiscrimination policy, which was expanded last year to include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
To comply, each campus should “designate and label multiple-occupancy bathrooms and changing facilities for single-sex use with signage,” she wrote. (During the conference call, Mr. Shanahan said he didn’t think any new labeling would be necessary.) Ms. Spellings also wrote that campus officials could “consider assembling and making information available about the locations of designated single-occupancy bathrooms and changing facilities on campus.”
The law did not include any enforcement provisions. On Friday, Ms. Spellings said that “we don’t intend to enforce anything, other than asking for people to be notified about where they can find gender-neutral bathrooms.”
The system had no say in the law’s passing, she said. However, “were it up to me, I would not recommend the enactment of such a thing,” she said. “It creates this idea that is far beyond the particular aspects of this bathroom, transgender matter.”
Update (4/8/2016, 9:30 p.m.): This article has been updated with statements by other public-university leaders and by the president of Davidson College.
Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.