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Governor welcomes alumni to Executive Mansion

From the steps in the foyer of the N.C. Executive Mansion, Gov. Beverly Perdue welcomed the Wake Forest School of Law into the stately Victorian home.

“The house belongs to the people of North Carolina,” she told about 150 guests, which included alumni, faculty and staff. “This is your house.”

The School of Law alumni reception, held Thursday, Feb. 25, was the first time since Perdue’s election in 2008 that the people of North Carolina used the mansion, which was completed in 1891 and remains one of the state’s finest examples of the Queen Anne style of Victorian architecture, according to the Web site of N.C. Historic Sites. The first occupant of the house was Gov. Daniel Fowle, who lived there from January 1891 until his death in April of that year. The house has been used continuously throughout the 20th century with each successive governor and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.

“You don’t know what this means to me,” Perdue said in welcoming her guests, “because I’m trying really hard to reach beyond North Carolina’s public university system, to reach out to these wonderful private schools and universities, like Wake Forest. It is terrifically important to me that you’re here.”

I’m trying really hard to reach beyond North Carolina’s public university system, to reach out to these wonderful private schools and universities, like Wake Forest.

Shortly after her election in 2008 as the state’s 73rd governor, a trusted adviser told Perdue she inherited the toughest economy since the Great Depression. Perdue couldn’t argue the point. When she entered office, North Carolina’s budget deficit had reached $4.6 billion.

“There were two months in the spring (of 2009) when I didn’t know how I was going to pay the bills,” said Perdue, recounting a night when she and lawmakers faced $1 billion in bills and $252 million left from a $22 billion budget to pay them.

Last year, Perdue cut $2 billion and 2,000 positions from the state budget.

“I’ve had to rob Peter to pay Paul,” she said. “I’ve furloughed state employees and teachers for the first time in the history of North Carolina. I’ve made tough, hard decisions, but I want to tell you where we are this year. Every cloud has a silver lining. First of all, we’re coming out of recovery. Rest assured, we’re coming out of recovery.”

Lately, she said, the news from state and private economists has been more positive. In 2009, leading economists and financial analysts gave North Carolina’s economy a grade of D-minus or F, ranking it with budget-challenged states such as California, New Jersey and Mississippi. In the past 90 days, the grade has improved to a B-minus.

These same financial experts believe by the end of the calendar year North Carolina’s economy will be as healthy as that of any state in the country, Perdue said. The state also has regained its AAA bond rating, and Site Selection magazine recently announced that North Carolina is the No. 1 place in the country to do business.

Perdue urged the guests from Wake Forest to help her end political infighting.

“Put aside the harsh rhetoric right now. The country and the state have to come together and fight for recovery and get us poised for greatness, because that’s what North Carolina is.”

Perdue lauded Wake Forest and former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverly Lake for their work to free prisoners who have been wrongly convicted and sentenced. Lake, a Wake Forest alum, was instrumental in developing the N.C. Innocence and Inquiry Commission, which got its first victory when it freed Greg Taylor in February. Taylor was wrongly convicted for killing a prostitute in 1991.

In 2009, Wake Forest instituted its own Innocence and Justice Clinic, which earned its first win in January when it discovered a sentencing miscalculation involving Machello Bitting, who served nine years in prison on charges of attempted robbery.

Every law school in the country should follow Wake Forest’s lead, said Perdue, who also thanked the university for its work in developing the Community Law and Business Clinic.

“That’s what I call civic gifts to the people of North Carolina,” she said. “One of the real pillars at the School of Law at Wake Forest is your ongoing and more than century-old commitment to helping the folks who graduate from Wake Forest — who are those Demon Deacons — to understand that civic engagement and participation in the lifeblood of whatever community you live in is as important as the size of your bank account or the house in which you live. For that, North Carolina is better.”

School of Law Dean Blake Morant, who made Perdue an honorary Demon Deacon, followed the governor on the mansion steps. He spoke of a “sea change” in legal education.

Morant talked about Wake Forest’s new Applied Legal Theory Program — Law In Action, which gives advanced students an opportunity to witness how the doctrine of law operates in a real-world context, and the Appellate Advocacy Clinic, where students have argued before the Fourth Circuit. He said the School of Law, through programs such as the Metropolitan Externship, wants to extend its brand beyond Winston-Salem and North Carolina. In 2011, the externship will begin in Washington, D.C., and will be paired with a program led by a commission that will oversee symposia, colloquia and workshops that deal with contemporary issues.

“It used to be that the only thing law schools would say they do is teach lawyers how to think,” Morant said. “Now we’re in an age where we’re listening to the practicing bar, we’re listening to graduates. It’s very important to not only teach students how to think, but also to make sure they are really well-prepared professionals when they leave.”

Morant spoke about conferences he has attended in which talk focused on reinvigorating the curriculum to ensure law students become professionals who make a difference toward solving society’s problems.

“I smile and say, at Wake Forest, we have always had a history of making sure that our students not only have the intellectual rigor, but also understand that becoming a great lawyer means that you have to appreciate the historical contexts that lawyers have operated in — and that is that they are citizen lawyers, both operating with ethics and great professionalism. But what we want to do is inculcate that in a very strong way in our curriculum. We see this as a start of really invigorating, what I think will be, a revolution in legal education.

“We are on the precipice of very great things; to move this law school in a direction which not only capitalizes on what already makes it great, but also will make sure that the individuals that we educate will carry forth the banner of the true citizen lawyer,” Morant said.