As the UNC Board of Governors turns: Members go silent as concerns about Fetzer mount

By: - November 22, 2019 6:00 am

Members of the UNC Board of Governors have largely gone silent on the recent controversy surrounding the resignation of East Carolina University’s former interim chancellor. But the board is not yet done dealing with the investigation into a night of drinking and alleged drunk driving by the former chancellor and board member Tom Fetzer’s own secret investigation into and behind-the-scenes moves on the matter, sources said this week.

Several board members and UNC system staffers close to the matter spoke to Policy Watch in the last week on the condition of not being identified. They made the request so they could describe personnel and legal matters discussed in closed session. The members described a board bracing for possible lawsuits over the matter, a push for Fetzer’s resignation and/or the possibility of removing him from the board.

Whether that is possible is, so far, unclear. But Fetzer has been removed as board liaison to ECU.

The move came late last month as the private tensions over his actions boiled over into letters from the UNC general counsel aimed at the lawyer Fetzer hired to aid his rogue investigation.

Further action is likely, board members said this week, but the matter is so politically and legally fraught that it is unlikely to be discussed in public.

Last week, during the board’s two-day meeting at Elizabeth City State University, board chair Randy Ramsey joined several other board members in condemning Fetzer’s actions and saying there should be consequences.

Board member Tom Fetzer

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for any member to operate outside of the board, regardless of whether it’s the chair of the board or whomever,” Ramsey said in an interview with Policy Watch. “I believe we all have governance policies in place and we should follow those governance policies.”

Ramsey suggested there should be consequences for Fetzer’s actions.

Ramsey’s comments came shortly after David Powers, chair of the board’s committee on University Governance, announced his committee would be looking into the board’s rules and governance – particularly involving sanctions. Fetzer, vice-chair of the committee, did not attend the meeting in which Powers made that announcement.

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randall Ramsey

Many observers and board members themselves anticipated a long closed session during the board’s second day of meetings, which Fetzer did attend. Instead, the board held a near-record short closed session of just under 20 minutes before coming back into open session and quickly adjourning. Fetzer declined to answer questions from the media and quickly left the meeting after it adjourned.

Neither Ramsey nor any of the other board members would take questions on the Fetzer matter after the closed session.

Asked if consequences for Fetzer’s actions were still likely, Ramsey would only say that he did not intend to make further public statements on the matter.

Board member Steve Long expressed the sentiment of those on the board who have been critical of Fetzer.

Asked if Fetzer should face consequences for his actions, Long said, “Our policy and the law say ‘yes.’”

Asked whether he believed there would actually be any consequences, Long said, “I don’t know.”

Politics and policy

The board has already taken one action regarding Fetzer in removing him from his position as liaison to ECU.

On October 28, the UNC System General Counsel Tom Shanahan sent a cease and desist letter to Peter Romary, the Greenville lawyer Fetzer hired to aid his secret investigation into the ECU matter. Shanahan warned Romary to stop representing himself as working on behalf of the board of governors.

“You are not an employee or agent of the University and have no authority to perform any work on its behalf,” Shanahan wrote to Romary. “Be aware that no member of the Board of Governors or any of the Boards of Trustees have the authority to engage you or hire you on behalf of the university or any of its boards.”

The same day that Shanahan sent the letter, the board’s’ University Governance Committee revised the assignments of board members as liaisons to the system’s 17 campuses. Fetzer, who had been serving as board liaison to ECU, was replaced by Powers.

Committee assignments generally change once a year when new members join or old members leave the board, said UNC system spokesman Jason Tyson.

But ECU has had three different board liaisons in the last year. Unlike other changes – of which there were few in the latest round – the ECU liaison changes were not the result of current liaisons leaving the board or new members cycling onto the board.

UNC Board member Steve Long

Earlier this year, Steve Long served in the position. Long was replaced by Fetzer after publicly speaking out against the ouster of Cecil Staton as ECU chancellor and suggesting former board of governors chairman Harry Smith was carrying out a personal vendetta in forcing Staton’s resignation. As system staff and members of the board became aware of Fetzer and Romary’s private investigation into Interim Chancellor Dan Gerlach – one not sanctioned by the board and in some ways conflicting with the official UNC investigation – Fetzer was replaced by Powers.

With the change, Powers, who chairs the University Governance Committee, went from acting as liaison for five different schools to six.

Asked for an explanation of the changes, Tyson sent a written statement.

“The liaisons for the UNC Board of Governors to member institutions and affiliates are determined by board leadership and can change as needed based on the individual needs of the institutions or affiliates themselves,” Tyson wrote.

Resignation or removal?

When Harry Smith stepped down as chairman of the board last month and then abruptly resigned from the board entirely, it was the culmination of tensions on the board and in the wake of accusations he had been too involved with ECU.

Harry Smith

Long publicly called for Smith to resign back in March, suggesting the board should at least force his resignation as chairman. The votes didn’t then exist on the board to force the issue. But board members say Smith’s sudden exit from the board – a group he said he had come to find “too political” – was a result of board members’ loss of confidence in him and exhaustion with controversies caused by his combative personality.

Now, board members say, a similar dissatisfaction has grown on the board after multiple controversies involving Fetzer.

Last week, the UNC system released further documents related to the ECU controversy and Fetzer’s place in it.

Among them was an email from Fetzer to UNC System Interim President Bill Roper, former board chairman Harry Smith and ECU Board of Trustees member Michael Williford.

In the email, sent before the naming of Dan Gerlach as interim Chancellor, Fetzer outlined an extensive plan he called “Operation Rescue ECU.” The plan went from the installation of an interim chancellor to the plans for the school’s future in the next few years.

Fetzer offered specific strategic points on what the school should do going forward, from fiscal and enrollment plans to a new marketing campaign he wanted to call “ECU Wants You.”

Fetzer went so far as to dictate a draft of the interim chancellor’s first public remarks which included describing Staton’s leadership as “two years of controversy and chaos” which now needs to be replaced with “calm and stability.”

Fetzer also recommended waiting until after spring graduation, when students left campus, to name a new chancellor to avoid “sympathy for Staton” — who was forced to resign without any public reason back in March.

Last week, several board members suggested the letter shows Fetzer always harbored an interest in being chosen as the next permanent chancellor at ECU. Then Gerlach, the interim chancellor who was well liked among students, faculty and trustees, announced he would be a candidate for the position.

Fetzer launched a private investigation into allegations of Gerlach drinking with students and allegedly driving drunk. It now seems obvious he did so to make sure damaging information on a potential rival for the position was made as public as was possible, several board members told Policy Watch this week.

In September, Fetzer told Policy Watch he was not interested in any open leadership position in the UNC system, from one of the open chancellorships to the UNC System presidency.

But, as Policy Watch has reported, this is not the first time Fetzer operated outside the system to impact a chancellor search.

Last year Fetzer and Romary were also involved in the scuttled search for a new chancellor at Western Carolina University. Fetzer gave confidential candidate information to Romary, who suggested the final candidate had lied on their application. Other members of the board said that wasn’t true.

The candidate ultimately withdrew their application amid concerns about confidentiality. Fetzer’s fellow board members — and then-UNC President Margaret Spellings — criticized Fetzer for stepping outside of the board’s process and compromising the confidentiality of the selection process.

Fetzer later admitted he had spoken to Spellings about becoming interim chancellor at Western Carolina himself but was denied when she said she’d chosen someone else.

Taken together, several board members said, the incidents amount to a dereliction of the “Duties, Responsibilities and Expectations of Board Members” as described in Chapter 200 of the Code and UNC Policy Manual concerning Board of Governors Affairs:

Ethical Conduct. Board members shall adhere to high standards of ethical conduct by complying with laws, regulations, and University policies applicable to their service as board members and public officials, which include the obligations to:

1. Exercise authority honestly and fairly, free from impropriety, threats, favoritism, and undue influence, as required by the State Ethics Act.[4]
2. Keep confidential all information and records that are required by law to be kept confidential, including, but not limited to, personnel records and information, student records and information, attorney-client communications, and closed session deliberations and information;
3. Comply with North Carolina open meetings and public records laws;
4. Bring matters of concern, potential or real conflicts of interest, and reports of unlawful and/or noncompliant activity to the attention of the appropriate institutional or organizational officer, such as the president, chancellor, board chair, or committee chair;
5. Avoid any personal or business interest that may conflict with the member’s responsibilities to the institution or University-affiliated organization;
6. Avoid even the appearance of impropriety when conducting the institution’s or University-affiliated organization’s business; and
7. recuse oneself from consideration of matters during meetings when required.”

The code and policy manual also lay out conditions for sanctions or removal of a member of the board of governors. Under the current language, the final decision appears to lay with the legislature, to which the board would have to submit a request for the member’s removal:

“If the Board of Governors or a board of trustees finds that one of its members has violated this policy, the Board may take one or more of the following actions:

i. Reprimand or censure the member;
ii. Remove the person from any board office the person holds or from any committee chairmanship or assignment; and
iii. Report the violation to the entity that appointed the member.

Removal of a Member of the Board of Governors. The Board of Governors may recommend to the State House of Representatives or State Senate, whichever chamber elected the member, that a member of the Board of Governors be removed.

Procedure for Removal; Specification of Cause; Notice and Opportunity to Respond

The chair of the Committee on University Governance shall send the board member a written specification of reasons to consider the board member’s removal.In the event that the chair of the Committee on University Governance is the subject of the board’s consideration of a recommendation of removal, the vice chair of the Committee on University Governance will temporarily serve in the chair’s role. The notice shall state that the board member may submit a written response to the chair of the Committee on University Governance within five (5) business days of receipt of the written notice.

The Committee on University Governance shall consider the written response of the board member and recommend to the Board of Governors action that the committee deems appropriate.If the board member submits no written response to the chair of the Committee on University Governance within the specified timeframe, the Committee on University Governance may continue with its consideration of removal of the board member, or a recommendation that the appropriate appointing or electing authority remove the board member.

In its consideration of each matter, the Committee on University Governance may review any documents or establish any procedures it considers necessary based on the particular circumstances involved.”

It is unclear whether legislative leaders would consider removing Fetzer, a powerful GOP lobbyist, former mayor of Raleigh and past chair of the state Republican Party.

Calls to House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger on the issue were not returned this week or last.

David Powers, chair of the University Governance Committee, declined to comment on the question of whether Fetzer’s case would meet the criteria for removal.

Ramsey and Fetzer also declined questions from Policy Watch on the matter.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.