At UNC, badly divided Board of Governors struggles to find common ground on some basic issues

By: - November 7, 2017 2:48 pm
UNC President Margaret Spellings and Board Chairman Louis Bissette

At last week’s meeting of the full UNC Board of Governors, the seeds of the contentious board’s next major conflict began to sprout.

The point of tension: a proposal for the Board of Governors to hire its own dedicated staff members.

No UNC staffers currently report directly to the board. Instead, existing General Administration staff help the board as part of their other duties. But an increasingly vocal faction of the board, emboldened by a recently passed state budget provision allowing them to hire their own staff, say it’s time to do so.

Other members of the board – including its chair – say doing so would undercut UNC President Margaret Spellings, who currently oversees the General Administration staff handling that work. Spellings has repeatedly butted heads with an emerging, more conservative wing of the board and many members worry that a separate staff will further isolate Spellings and further divide an already fractious board.

[Tweet “It’s a very controversial issue and divisive to my mind”]

“It’s a very controversial issue and divisive to my mind,” UNC Board Chairman Louis Bissette said during a discussion of the matter in the board’s Governance committee Thursday. “I’m opposed to it.”

Bissette warned that taking the proposal – made by board member David Powers – to the full board would lead to unneeded conflict at a time when the board is just getting over a series of public dust-ups.

Bissette said he’d already discussed the idea with Spellings and that she opposed it. Pushing forward with the idea anyway would be “bad optics” statewide, Bissette said.

Board member Frank Graingier agreed, saying the board (all members of which were appointed by the GOP-dominated General Assembly) is currently “the most divided board I’ve ever been on or seen,” and that he wants to avoid further divisive moves if possible.

He also questioned where the funding would come from.

“The legislature didn’t say ‘you shall do this,’” Bissette said. “They didn’t appropriate $300,00. They said ‘You may do this’ – with no funding.”

David Powers

Board member Ann Maxwell echoed that sentiment, asking whether it would be necessary to secure funding before taking the idea from a possibility allowed by the legislature to a reality.

Powers, a Raleigh lobbyist with strong ties to the GOP majority in the legislature, said the board should at least explore the idea – perhaps taking on a lawyer, an auditor and a secretary from the existing staff. Whether the full board or he himself ended up supporting the idea in the end, Powers said, they should at least draw up a plan for how it might work.

The committee discussion ended with an unusual vote.

Bissette took the unusual step of voting himself – his right as chair, though he is not technically a member of the committee.

That led to a 4-4 vote with Bissette, Grainger, Maxwell and Governance committee chair Steve Long voting against and Powers, James Webb, Philip Byers and Randy Ramsey all voting in favor.

Though some board members thought the idea would die there, others were determined to get it before the full board.

Marty Kotis

At their Friday morning full board meeting, board member Marty Kotis asked that the staff matter be considered.

Bissette said the issue had died in committee and that barring a 2/3 vote of the board, the full board could not consider an issue that didn’t make it out of committee.

That killed the discussion for Friday’s meeting, but several members said they expect it will come up again during the board’s one-day meeting in December.

“It might go through another committee,” said Kotis after the meeting. “Or, when a large number on the board want to discuss an issue, there’s a way to have a full board discussion.”

Kotis said it was unusual for Bissette to create a tie on the issue when the seven member committee might otherwise have sent it to the full board. He appreciated the views of those who oppose hiring staff for the board, he said, but thinks it would make things move more quickly on the board and keep from overburdening existing staff who now deal with board matters.

“I don’t see it as being about undercutting the President at all,” Kotis said.

Grainger said he’s not looking forward to any further discussion of the issue.

“I think we should just do what we do and not get into any other areas,” Grainger said. “Let the President do what she does, let us make policy and stay out of it.”

Conservative business leaders agree with Grainger, as they’ve made clear to the board repeatedly in the last few weeks.

Last week, as the board met, businessmen Robert Ingram and Roger Perry addressed the issue in a piece for the Higher Education Works Foundation. They wrote:

The proper role for boards of large institutions – be they public or corporate – is to set policy and then allow administrators the freedom to carry out that policy and hold them accountable for the results.

The Board of Governors needs to do just that with Spellings: Give her the leeway to meet the ‘Higher Expectations’ in that plan for a better-educated North Carolina.

In fact, the Board of Governors and all of us need to support Margaret Spellings in those aspirations and expectations. Our public universities have helped distinguish North Carolina from other states, and our students’ futures and our shared future as a state depend on it.”

The question of hiring staff for the board of governors is just the latest in a series of tense political stand-offs on and around the board.

With combative conservatives closely allied with the Republican majority at the General Assembly like retired senator Bob Rucho and former state GOP chairman Tom Fetzer now a part of the board, a number of controversial proposals have come to the fore.

Among them – and also discussed at last week’s meeting – is the idea of moving the UNC General Administration out of Chapel Hill. Board members have had a hard time articulating a justification for the move – particularly given concerns on the board and from Spellings about the cost and complications of such a move. But moving UNC system operations out of politically liberal Chapel Hill – home of the system’s flagship campus – was described as “a branding issue” during a board discussion.

Board member James Webb summed up the issue – and many others – succinctly.

“If this is something the legislature wants done, it will happen,” Webb said. “If not, it won’t.”

Dr. Michael Bitzer, an expert on North Carolina politics who teaches Political Science and History at Catawba College, said the creep of politics onto the board – and its attendant tensions – was almost inevitable.

“I would say that the political polarization within the UNC System is simply reflective of the environment surrounding it, particularly within state government,” Bitzer said.

“Both political parties are clearly sorted into like-minded perspectives and thus very divided, with very different world views,” Bitzer said. “And whenever one party has absolutely power and control, their influence can have significant impacts on all kinds of government operations, higher education included.”

“That runs up against the notion of governance in higher education and the issue of academic freedom, along with a host of other controversies,” Bitzer said. “So it’s not surprising to me that the two sides are taking their fights into the public realm of higher education. It’s just another symptom of our divided state of politics.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.