2 former presidents are making an effort to rethink North Carolina governance

After years of leadership instability and accusations of political overreach in the University of North Carolina system, the state’s governor has announced efforts to consider rethinking board appointments. It is led by two recent presidents of the UNC system, who resigned amid unrest.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said Tuesday he will create a bipartisan 15-member commission to examine the current system for appointing the state’s public university boards. The panel must make recommendations within eight months.

“The UNC system is the envy of the nation for what we’ve built here,” Cooper said. “But there are signs of trouble when all of its appointed leaders are elected by too few — signs of undue political influence, bureaucratic meddling, and idiosyncratic political thought.”

A 2020 Chronicle The investigation found that North Carolina’s current board appointment system is vulnerable to an ideologically driven and politically motivated form of college governance. And North Carolina is not alone: ​​Across the country, states under effective one-party rule have sought to exert more control over the governance 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 at each of the system’s 16 campuses are mostly elected by the system’s board of trustees, with the remainder appointed by the legislature. The governor previously had the authority to select some trustees, but lawmakers took that power away in 2016, shortly 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 to resign as the system’s board shifted to reflect political changes in the state after Republicans took control of the Legislature in 2010. for the first time in over a century. By then, there were essentially no Democratic members on the board, replaced by strong ties to the Republican Party.

Ross’s Republican successor, Margaret Spellings, secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration, is the other co-chair. But he resigned from the UNC system halfway through his contract, amid tensions with the system’s board and political controversies, such as the fate of the Silent Sam Confederate monument on the Chapel Hill campus, which was pulled down by protesters a few months before his resignation.

The Coalition for Carolina, a group of Chapel Hill faculty and staff, alumni, students and a former board chairman who believe political interference is harming the state’s flagship university, called for a commission to review the appointment system several months ago. Mimi V. Chapman, chair of the Chapel Hill Faculty Council and one of the coalition’s founders, said political machinations and the fairness of board appointments have been a constant topic of discussion on UNC campuses.

“We are concerned about the overreaching of administrative boards, concerned about whether searches are fair and open. There are policies in place that change the nature of those searches, which change the impact of stakeholders,” said Chapman, a professor at the School of Social Work. “Not to mention the higher-profile scandals that have been on North Carolina’s national radar.”

Along with the controversy over Silent Sam, the UNC system has made national news with scandals such as the offer of Nikole Hannah-Jones to the Chapel Hill campus. last month AssemblyThe speaker of the state House of Representatives has been removed as a campus trustee for not endorsing his preferred candidate for UNC-Wilmington chancellor, a North Carolina online publication reported. The system has also seen turnover among its leaders at both the system and campus levels.

To restore stability, Ross said Chronicle that one of his top priorities is to develop a system of council appointments that ensures diversity – along ideological, geographic, racial and gender lines.

“We want to create a board that brings people from different backgrounds to the table because that’s useful in any debate and discussion,” Ross said. “When there are different viewpoints, it tends to reduce the effort to intervene and the micromanagement that we’ve seen in higher education across the country.”

Spelling echoed that sentiment. “People need to be able to feel that they are represented in this company,” he said Chronicle. “Unfortunately, this is not the case at the moment.”

Restoring trust

Ultimately, North Carolina’s board-appointment authority rests with the Legislature, which appears reluctant to make changes. State Sen. Phil Berger, a Republican who serves as interim chairman, characterized the committee in a written statement. Chronicle as “Gov. Cooper’s last autocratic attempt to increase his power and expand executive power.

Spellings said removing the partisan impulse from university governance is a matter of restoring trust, not returning power to any political party.

“The way to restore institutional trust and support is through greater inclusion, greater transparency, and a place at the table for many viewpoints,” he said. “We need our public institutions, especially universities, to be strong, to grow and to meet the demands of our economy and the world.”

Peter Hans, the current president of the UNC system, said in a written statement that its “fundamentals have never been stronger” and that he welcomes the accountability.

Spellings said the impact of university mismanagement can be profound. When political power and influence become the primary currency on campus, trust is hard to come by.

“You have to have the ability to have the right athletes on the field. In the management structures, your organization is part of the long game of the institution. And if they are changed or changed in such a way that they are not fully reflective, you cannot play the long game,” he said.

The commission has also been tasked with clearly formulating the role and responsibility of the board members in the management of the university. Traditionally, college boards have had great influence over the policies and priorities of public universities and have had considerable freedom to set their own agendas. Chapman said the perception — or, really, the reality — that political forces are more important than the sensibilities of people on campus can erode the trust students and faculty have in their administrators and leaders.

“This concept of shared governance must be respected. Admins are hired for a reason, and they can’t be bogged down by having to serve so many hosts that they don’t have room to move,” Chapman said. “The board needs to be sensitive and recognize the expertise of the people who work on the campuses.”

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