In voting to change chancellor search policy, UNC Board of Governors could expand System president’s power

By: - September 16, 2020 2:06 pm

UNC Board Chair Ramsey and System President Peter Hans

Trustees at Historically Black Colleges and Universities oppose the change over concerns that conservative white leadership is often at odds with HBCUs’ mission

UNC System President Peter Hans could further consolidate his power if the Board of Governors votes Thursday on a major and fundamental change to how chancellors are chosen for UNC system schools.

In July before he had officially taken office, Hans proposed a change that would allow the president to unilaterally add up to two hand-chosen candidates to any chancellor search process.

Those candidates would go through the same interviews as other candidates, but would automatically move forward in a slate of finalists for the position, irrespective of the opinions of search committees or boards of trustees.

In effect, the president would have the power to appoint finalists and choose the final candidate from those finalists.

Critics say it concentrates too much power in the hands of the UNC System president. Proponents say it makes the UNC System more like a private business, in which CEOs choose the leadership teams they believe will be most successful.

Under the current system, an individual school’s board of trustees conducts an independent search and forwards at least two finalists to the UNC System President. The president chooses a final candidate to submit for a final approval by the UNC Board of Governors.

Since the change was proposed, members of the UNC Board of Governors, trustees and faculty groups across the system have questioned its wisdom — some strongly condemning it. The faculty Senate at UNC-Greensboro and the American Association of University Professors chapters at UNCG, UNC-Chapel Hill and East Carolina University have all released public statements opposing the change.

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore

One of the state’s leading higher education groups, Higher Ed Works, has also editorialized against the proposed change.

The ECU AAUP resolution calls the proposal “a radical and dangerous expansion in the powers of the system President and would eradicate institutional sovereignty and shared governance in the process where it is most critical; that is, in choosing an executive leader who has the trust and support of the University community.”

The change is of particular interest at ECU, which is currently searching for a chancellor. In February two trustees told Policy Watch  that North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) was aggressively seeking the chancellor’s position. The board, which has been divided on a number of contentious issues, has seen tensions over whether Moore’s candidacy would be a flagrant conflict of interests.

Several board members said they do not believe it would be proper for one of the state’s most powerful elected officials, responsible for appointing members of both the Board of Trustees and the UNC Board of Governors, to take a job on which those boards would ultimately vote.

In February Joseph Kyzer, Moore’s communications director, responded to Policy Watch’s questions about whether Moore is seeking the chancellorship. “Speaker Moore is seeking re-election to the state House in 2020, plans to run for another term as Speaker if elected, and is focused on serving higher education students and campuses through his position in the General Assembly,” Kyzer said. Moore’s office has not responded to subsequent questions about his interest in the position, including inquiries made after and about Hans’s proposed changes.

“Not a good image, not a good decision”

But opposition to the change goes well beyond ECU. Trustees at three of the system’s historically black universities  — North Carolina A&T State University, North Carolina Central University and Fayetteville State University — told Policy Watch this week that they are concerned about the leadership decisions for their schools being further concentrated into the hands of conservative white men.

Trustees at each of the school asked not be named to avoid political reprisal from the board of governors or UNC System office.

“I think we all know at this point that if we criticize the board of governors publicly or we question the system president publicly, that is the end of our time as trustees,” said a trustee from N.C. Central. “We may privately express our questions or our reservations when we feel comfortable, but we have seen trustees who speak up publicly not get another term. That’s just the history at this point.”

Each of the HBCU trustees who spoke to Policy Watch emphasized the importance of maintaining a culture and identity at their schools that is at odds with the idea of the UNC System president hand-picking their leaders.

“The board of governors is overwhelmingly white, male and conservative,” said a trustee at N.C. A&T. “If you look at the boards of trustees at our HBCUs, that is not what you will see there.”

“I’m not saying that people who don’t look like us, who don’t look like our faculty or our students, can’t make a good decision,” the trustee said. “But there is already a history in this state and this UNC System of Black people being left out of decision making. To now say our trustees, the local people with connections to these schools, can be overruled or have candidates and finalist candidates chosen for us by the powers that be … that is not a good message, it is not a good image, it’s not a good decision.”

The trustee pointed to N.C. A&T Chancellor Harold Martin. Martin is an A&T alumnus with deep ties to the university. He served as the dean of its prestigious College of Engineering and chairman of its Department of Electrical Engineering. He served as the chancellor of Winston-Salem State University and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the UNC System before taking his current post at A&T’s top leader. But the Martin is known to speak his mind and advocate strongly for his school and for HBCUs, the trustee said.

“I would question whether our chancellor would be chosen under this proposed change we’re talking about,” the A&T trustee said. “He has been one of the great leaders of the school and is nationally recognized as an HBCU leader. But is he the person a conservative white man would choose as his personal finalist in a position where he knows he might criticize policies and decisions by the system?”

“We have not seen that this current leadership at the UNC System level wants strong leaders who take principled stands and are unafraid to speak truth to power,” the trustee said.

A trustee at N.C. Central said that the current national conversation about racial equity — including efforts by the UNC System and its board of governors — makes it an embarrassing time to consider empowering a white UNC System president to overrule leadership decisions by trustees at majority Black schools.

“Look at how the UNC System dealt with the issue of Confederate statues on campuses, at the Silent Sam episode,” said the N.C. Central trustee. “Look at how they have dealt with protests and armed white supremacists on their campuses. Look at questions about policing. You have to question whether you want people with that kind of judgment choosing the final candidates for leadership of HBCUs, over and above the judgment of those schools’ trustees.”

A trustee at Fayetteville State University pointed to Hans’s deep Republican connections, which the trustee said now seems to be a prerequisite for both UNC Board of Governors members and UNC System presidents.

“There is not one Democrat that’s a voting member on the board of governors right now,” the trustee said. “If it wasn’t a political necessity to be Republican on that board, you would have at least one of its 24 members who is from the opposing party. There are not no qualified Democrats in the entire state that could sit on that board.”

The trustee pointed out that while Hans served on the UNC Board of Governors before leading the state’s community college system for two years, they believe his political credentials distinguished him from other potential candidates. He served as senior policy advisor to two Republican U.S. senators, Lauch Faircloth and Richard Burr, and was a campaign advisor for GOP Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

That makes it difficult to believe choices he makes won’t be political, the trustee said — including how he may choose leaders for the state’s universities.

“You cannot tell me that of all the candidates we could have chosen for the leadership of one of the most respected public university systems in the nation, it is a coincidence that a well-connected Republican with ties to some of the most powerful Republicans in North Carolina happened to be the most qualified for that position,” the trustee said. “Asking someone to believe that, that would be an insult to my intelligence.”

Differing views on the board

When Hans was elected to the position, he had support from prominent names on both sides of the political aisle — including the state’s most prominent Democrat, Gov. Roy Cooper.

Upon Hans’s election Cooper, state Senate leader President Pro Tem Phil Berger  (R-Rockingham) and Speaker Moore  released a rare joint statement with the governor praising the choice.

“Peter Hans has done tremendous work as president of the N.C. Community College System, and he’s the right choice for UNC System President,” the three said in a statement. “That we all agree on Peter is a testament to the respect he commands as an able, competent leader.”

Hans leaned on that bipartisan respect in announcing his proposed change to the chancellor selection process, saying he plans to work with trustees and search committees on selecting leaders. “You have my pledge that I will work very closely with the search committees — cooperatively, collaboratively,” Hans told the UNC Board of Governors Personnel and Tenure Committee.

But if the president and trustees didn’t agree, the president’s finalists would prevail.

That could be a problem, said several members of the board.

“It seems like to me that could become a very sensitive area of discussion between you and the particular institution and its board of trustees,” board member Lou Bissette told Hans.

Bissette said he preferred decentralization of power and letting local boards of trustees conduct their own search processes without intervention from the system president.

Board of Governors member Doyle Parrish agreed. “I share Lou’s concern about the insertion of candidates that maybe are not welcomed on the campus level, the trustee level,” Parrish said. “I trust that Peter will be — and whoever our president is — will be conscientious of that and understand the implications.”

Board member Marty Kotis

Board member Marty Kotis, like most board members who have spoken publicly on it, supports the change. The switch is not about politics, Kotis said, but about achieving one of the long-term goals set by the board of governors: to run the UNC System more like a business in the private sector.

“In the private sector, the CEO would pick his leadership team,” Kotis said. “He would pick the people who report directly to him and work with him on achieving goals.”

Hans has more personal incentive to manage the system like a business than past presidents because of the particulars of his compensation package, Kotis said.

Hans’s base salary as president is $400,000 — dramatically less than his immediate predecessor, Interim UNC System President Bill Roper. Roper made $775,000 per year, with a $77,500 annual retirement contribution and the possibility of up to $125,000 in an annual performance bonus.

Hans stands to make an additional $600,000 in incentive pay based on his performance on three metrics: increasing on-time graduation rates for first-time and transfer undergraduate students; reducing expenses per degree completed; and reducing student loan debt per undergraduate student as a percentage of per-capita income.

“He’s putting his money where his mouth is,” Kotis said. “The bulk of his compensation is going to be based on how he accomplishes these things. He has to have a team on board he believes is going to help him accomplish them.”

Michael Frierson, head of the AAUP chapter at UNCG, said that as public trusts, the governance of universities is fundamentally different from how one would operate a private business — and should be. “Regardless of whether there’s a Republican board of governors or a Democratic one — however they lean — it’s just not a good idea to turn a decision like this entirely over to them or to the president,” Frierson said. “The idea is there’s supposed to be shared government and accountability at the local level. That’s what’s always governed UNCG and it’s just a violation of that when the president and the board of governors can just completely control a chancellor search.”

Frierson said one of biggest concerns is that some very good candidates simply won’t apply in a chancellors’ search where the president has already chosen finalists.

“Why would you apply to a search where there’s the kind of manipulation we’re talking about?” Frierson said. “Why would you waste your time?”

Policy Watch’s requests to interview Hans have again gone unanswered this week. The UNC system office has not responded to written requests. The phone number listed for him on the UNC System website continues to connect to a number that does not have an active voice mail box.

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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.