After years of leadership instability and accusations of political overreach in the University of North Carolina system, the state’s governor has announced an effort to consider rethinking governing-board appointments. It will be led by two recent UNC-system presidents who resigned amid the turmoil.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said on Tuesday that he would create a bipartisan, 15-person commission to study the current appointment system for boards at the state’s public universities. The panel is to deliver recommendations within eight months.
“The UNC system is the envy of the nation for what we have built here,” Cooper said. “But there are signs of trouble that come when all of its appointed leaders are chosen by too few — signs of undue political influence, bureaucratic meddling, and singularity of political thought.”
A 2020 Chronicle investigation revealed that the current board-appointment system in North Carolina is vulnerable to an ideologically driven and politically motivated form of college governance. And North Carolina is not alone: Across the country, states under an effective one-party rule have sought to exert greater levels of control over the leadership and operations of their public colleges.
The UNC system’s 24-member Board of Governors is elected entirely by the Republican-led state legislature; the Boards of Trustees on each of the system’s 16 campuses are mostly elected by the system board, with the rest appointed by the legislature. The governor used to have the authority to pick some trustees, but lawmakers took away that power in 2016, right before Cooper took office.
One of the commission’s co-chairs is Thomas W. Ross, a Democrat who led the university system from 2011 to 2016. Ross was forced out as the system’s board shifted to reflect the state’s political transformation after Republicans took control of the legislature in 2010 for the first time in over a century. By then, the board had essentially no Democratic members, replaced by people with strong ties to the Republican Party.
Ross’s Republican successor, Margaret Spellings, secretary of education during the George W. Bush administration, is the other co-chair. But she resigned from the UNC system midway through her contract, amid growing tensions with the system’s board and political controversies like the fate of Silent Sam, the Confederate monument on the Chapel Hill campus that protesters pulled down a few months before her resignation.
The Coalition for Carolina, a group of Chapel Hill faculty and staff members, alumni, students, and a former board chair who believe political interference is damaging the state’s flagship university, called for a commission to evaluate the appointment system several months ago. Mimi V. Chapman, the Faculty Council chair at Chapel Hill and one of the coalition’s founders, said that political machinations and the fairness of board appointments have been a “constant theme of discussion” across UNC campuses.
“We are concerned about overreach by governing boards, concerned about whether searches are fair and open. Policies have been enacted that change the character of those searches, that change the influence of stakeholders,” said Chapman, a professor in the school of social work. “Not to mention the more high-profile scandals that have been on the national radar out of North Carolina.”
Along with the controversy over Silent Sam, the UNC system has made national news with scandals like the treatment of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s bid for tenure at the Chapel Hill campus. Last month The Assembly, an online publication in North Carolina, reported that the state’s House speaker had had a campus trustee removed because she didn’t support his preferred candidate to become chancellor of UNC-Wilmington. The system has also seen turnover among its leaders, at both the system and campus levels.
To regain stability, Ross told The Chronicle that one of his main priorities is to devise a board-appointment system that will ensure diversity — along ideological, geographic, racial, and gender lines.
“We want to structure a governing board that brings people to the table from different backgrounds because that’s healthy in any debate, any discussion,” Ross said. “Where there are different views, it tends to tamp down the effort to get into the meddling and micromanagement we’ve been seeing in higher education around the country.”
Spellings echoed that sentiment. “People need to be able to feel that they are represented in this enterprise,” she told The Chronicle. “That sadly is not the case at the moment.”
Ultimately, the authority to change board appointments in North Carolina rests with the legislature, which appears reluctant to make changes. State Sen. Phil Berger, a Republican who serves as president pro tempore, characterized the commission in a written statement to The Chronicle as “Gov. Cooper’s latest autocratic attempt to enlarge his power and expand executive control.”
Spellings said removing the partisan impulse in university governance is a matter of restoring trust, as opposed to returning power to any political party.
“The way that we restore confidence and support for institutions is greater engagement, greater transparency, and a seat at the table for lots of points of view,” she said. “We need our public institutions, especially our universities, to be strong, to thrive, and to meet the demands of our economy and our world.”
In a written statement, Peter Hans, the UNC system’s current president, said that its “fundamentals have never been stronger” and that he welcomes accountability.
The ripple effect of poor university management can be profound, Spellings said. When political power and influence become the main currency on campus, trust is hard to come by.
“You have to have the ability to have the right athletes on the field. In governance structures, how you’re organized — these are part of the long game in the institution. And when they are changed or modified to not be fully reflective, you don’t have the ability to play the long game,” she said.
The commission has also been charged with clearly articulating the role and responsibility of board members in directing the university. Traditionally, college governing boards have had a keen influence on the policies and priorities of public universities, and had a great deal of latitude to set their own agendas. Chapman said the perception — or, indeed, the reality — that political forces are more important than the sensibilities of people on campus can erode the trust students and faculty members have in their administrators and leaders.
“There needs to be respect for this notion of shared governance. Administrators are hired for a reason, and they can’t be hobbled by having to serve so many masters that they have no room to move,” Chapman said. “A governing board has to be sensitive and to recognize the expertise of people that work on the campuses.”