For those who’ve been living in a cave for the past few weeks, let me catch you up briefly: the NC state legislature recently passed (in a peremptory and clandestine fashion) the bill HB2, a bill nullifying the city of Charlotte’s recent referendum allowing transgender folks to use the public restrooms matching the gender they identify with. NC Governor Pat McCrory very quickly signed the bill into law. The law does more than overturn Charlotte’s pro-trans* referendum, however; it is written in such a fashion (for the full text of the law, look here) that it opens the door to more widespread discrimination (specifically, in employment) on the basis not only of gender and sexual orientation but on any other characteristic. In the short span since I’ve begun writing this blog regularly once more, I’ve already written about HB2 and its potential impact.
Enter Margaret Spellings, the UNC system’s recently-appointed President. Folks might best remember Spellings as President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education from 2005 to 2009 (until her replacement at the start of President Obama’s first term). She’s also served various roles in the George W. Bush Presidential Center. In 2005, Spellings called on PBS to stop distribution of an episode of the children’s show Postcards from Buster in which the title character, an animated rabbit, visits Vermont, a state that at that time was rare among the 50 for its recognition of same-sex civil unions, saying in a letter to PBS’s President, “Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode.”
Late in 2015 Spellings was appointed as the UNC President, roughly a year after the controversial ouster of previous President Tom Ross, whose leadership even his ousters didn’t fail to commend. Spellings was appointed at the end of a search process derided for its politicization and its lack of transparency. Moreover, upon her appointment, Spellings faced renewed criticism for the PBS incident, which called into question her support for LGBTQIA communities. We braced for impact.
Given our expectations, many (your humble narrator included) were a bit heartened by Spellings’s opening message to the UNC community, sent on March 1, in which she affirmed her support for all members of this community. The sixth paragraph of her message read (my emphasis added) as follows:
Achieving this goal [of providing equitable access to higher education] begins with ensuring that our campuses are welcoming and safe places for students and faculty of all races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender identities to live and learn and work alongside one another. Our institutions thrive because of our commitment to academic freedom and unfettered inquiry, and we have a responsibility to provide students with diverse perspectives, academic programs, and campus opportunities that will inform their own values and perspectives as they prepare to lead in our interconnected, global society. Equal access and opportunity to a university education are fundamental values of the University of North Carolina, and as president, I will be committed to ensuring that we recognize, respect, and serve all students, faculty, and staff.
On April 5, just over a month later, Spellings sent a memo to all UNC Chancellors in which she noted that although individual universities’ nondiscrimination policies need not be changed and although she recommends no specific enforcement of HB2, UNC institutions “must require every multiple-occupancy bathroom and changing facility to be designated for and used only by persons based on their biological sex.”
I’m left to wonder: what’s changed in the 35 days between her opening statement and this latest memo? How is obedience to the bathroom restriction mandated by HB2 not inherently discriminatory against transgender students, staff, and faculty at UNC schools like my own? In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declares “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.'”
I will have a few words to share with Ms. Spellings when we meet on the quad in front of my office in less than a week. I plan to be civil, I plan to be friendly. I plan to ask her to consider the dissonance between her earlier statement and her more recent one. I plan to ask her to consider Dr. King’s words. After all, when this incident shakes out and makes its way into the books, I’d much rather be on King’s side of history than McCrory’s, and I’d like to think that Ms. Spellings would prefer that, too.