Leaders in the University of North Carolina system say they will not enforce a controversial new law that requires transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificates. W. Randolph (Randy) Woodson, chancellor at North Carolina State, says the law runs afoul of his campus's nondiscrimination policies and could damage the university's standing in the scholarly community.
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In a recent conversation with The Chronicle, Mr. Woodson said he agreed with the U.S. Justice Department's position that the law, HB2, which is often called the "bathroom bill," amounts to discrimination. The department has declared the law a violation of federal civil-rights statutes and has filed a lawsuit that names the North Carolina system as a defendant.
JACK STRIPLING: I'm Jack Stripling with The Chronicle of Higher Education. I'm here with Randy Woodson, who is chancellor of North Carolina State University. It's one of the 17 campuses that's part of the University of North Carolina system. Dr. Woodson, thanks for coming.
RANDY WOODSON: Thanks, Jack.
JACK STRIPLING: I want to ask you about this bill that's gotten so much attention — HB2, often called the bathroom bill. It's gotten attention because of its affect on transgender people who are in the State of North Carolina. Margaret Spellings, who's president of the system, has said that the system is not going to do anything to enforce this law. But where does that leave NC State?
RANDY WOODSON: Well, as being part of the system and also doing everything we can to protect our LGBT community, we've also agreed with the president and the system that our policies are in place to protect the LGBT community, including our transgender students and faculty and staff. We're not changing our policies. We're certainly not doing anything to enforce the law. As we talked earlier, Jack, there's no enforcement measure within the law. So we're doing everything we can to continue business as usual and to make sure that those students and faculty and staff that feel compromised by this new legislation feel supported at our university campuses.
JACK STRIPLING: And to clarify, so you have a broad-based discrimination policy that covers transgender people.
RANDY WOODSON: We do.
JACK STRIPLING: And your interpretation of that would mean that they can use the bathroom with which they identify.
RANDY WOODSON: That's correct.
JACK STRIPLING: OK. I want to ask a little bit about the system's response. Because in some ways, it has been a legalistic response. We're not going to enforce this. And there have been statements of support for the transgender community. But what I haven't really heard is moral outrage. I haven't heard outright condemnation of the legislation. Is that in any way a deficit on the part of the leadership in the state?
RANDY WOODSON: Well, I think the response has been very strong to — President Spellings, for example, a couple of days after this happened, talked about the chill this sends through our campuses. All of us have spoken about the concerns that we have on our campus. So we're very concerned about it.
But as you know, this is now in the courts. And so we're dealing with the Department of Justice and making sure. The university system is caught between two agencies in this regard — the state and the federal government. So we're doing everything we can to be good citizens within the State of North Carolina, but also to make it very clear that this is not consistent with our policies or our goals as a university.
JACK STRIPLING: So I know that this is playing out in different legal forums. But I'm curious because you are in a position of leadership in your state — do you see this bill as an infringement on the civil rights of transgender people?
RANDY WOODSON: I certainly believe that it removes from protection the LGBT community from the state nondiscrimination law. It hasn't prohibited us from keeping that community in our nondiscrimination policy. But yes, it has impinged on the ability of members of our community to feel a part of the state. And also, in a very legal way, it's impacted their ability to seek legal recourse within the state court system.
JACK STRIPLING: They cannot use the state court system if they feel discriminated against under this law. I want to add to the record what the Justice Department has said about this and get your take on it. The Justice Department has described the law as "treating a student adversely because of the sex assigned to him at birth does not match his gender identity is literally discrimination on the basis of sex." Would you agree with that?
RANDY WOODSON: I would, which we're not following the — I mean, it says based on their gender, their birth gender.
JACK STRIPLING: Right.
RANDY WOODSON: Again, our policies allow us to protect students.
JACK STRIPLING: To clarify, you view this law as discriminatory.
RANDY WOODSON: I do, yes.
JACK STRIPLING: All right. Talk a little bit about the reputational damage that this may have done. We've spoken about this before. But I mean, you live in a state where Bruce Springsteen won't play guitar anymore, which is a tragedy in and of itself. But there are broader implications for a university that has a certain value system and is part of an academic community when you have a law like this in place. How does it affect you from a recruitment of faculty standpoint, students?
RANDY WOODSON: Yeah, that's the chilling effect that President Spellings talked about. When I look at the data and hear from the deans, I haven't seen a dramatic change in our ability to recruit students or faculty, largely because the university has taken a strong position. And I don't see an impact.
What it has had an impact on is, for example, our ability to be members of the scholarly community. We like to host events. We like to host conferences on our campus and in our state. And we've had some impact in that regard. So we've seen some evidence of conferences that we would like to support, at NC State or within the State of North Carolina, not coming our way because of HB2.
JACK STRIPLING: So based on everything we've discussed, if I'm a student applying to North Carolina State, but I'm weighing that against an offer of a comparable university in another state and I'm transgender, how would you advise me?
RANDY WOODSON: I would tell you to look at our policies and look at our actions and to talk to the students that are on our campus. And you'll see that you'll be treated very well at NC State.
JACK STRIPLING: So history is sort of watching. We feel like we're at a historic moment. How do you think history's going to view the University of North Carolina's response to this?
RANDY WOODSON: I think the history's going view us as doing everything we can to support our students and our faculty and staff.
JACK STRIPLING: All right, well, I hope that's the case. Thank you.
RANDY WOODSON: Yeah.
JACK STRIPLING: Appreciate. It.
Correction (6/27/2016, 11:10 a.m.): The law requires people to use bathrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates, not their gender at birth. Birth certificates can be amended. The text has been corrected.