PW special report: How did Darrell Allison cut in line to become the new chancellor at Fayetteville State? It’s a secret.

By: - February 24, 2021 12:00 pm

Darrell Allison (Photo Courtesy UNC System)

Allison’s political connections and loyalty might have helped him get the job.

Darrell Allison did not make the final cut in the search process for Fayetteville State University’s next chancellor, according to sources directly involved in the process. Instead, the former UNC Board of Governors member was added at the last-minute to the list of finalists submitted to the UNC System.

This week, sources close to the process, including several FSU trustees and those directly involved at the UNC System level, told Policy Watch that Allison was far from the most qualified of the more than 60 applicants, which came from all over the country. Nonetheless, Allison’s close political and personal relationships on the board of governors and in the North Carolina General Assembly ultimately got him the job, sources said.

“It would be fair to say that he was no one’s first choice in the selection process,” said one FSU trustee, who asked not to be named so that they could discuss details of the confidential search process. “But it was obvious that he would be the first choice of [UNC System President] Peter Hans and the board and he has support from the General Assembly.”

“The reality is that this is a political process,” the trustee said. “I’m not saying it hasn’t always been a political process, to some degree. But it is now a more political process than it has ever been. To try to deny that is trying to deny reality. So you have to go with the candidates you think will be approved. That was the argument for adding him.”

The strongest argument made for Allison, another trustee said, was that despite his lack of academic or administrative credentials in higher education, he has political connections that will benefit the school.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]
Chancellor start date: March 15
Chancellor Salary: $285,000 and use of a car and residence provided by the school
FSU enrollment (Fall 2020): 6,726 (a record)
Source: Fayetteville State University, UNC System enrollment statistics

“You can argue about whether that’s the best reason to hire someone for a leadership position, because they are politically connected,” the trustee said. “I might argue that’s not the best reason. But at the end of the day, this is a decision that ultimately is made by the president of the system and the board of governors, appointed by the General Assembly. We have examples of chancellors and even system presidents that didn’t have their support. Look at [former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor) Carol Folt at Carolina. Look at [Former UNC System President Margaret] Spellings.”

“We have all seen these searches go on for a very long time and even several of them get scrapped completely if they don’t feel like they’re going to get the result they want,” the trustee said. “You have to have someone they want to support whether that’s the choice of the trustees or not.”

The FSU search went on for more than a year, including a hiatus of about four months at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Allison did not apply until the end of September, when he abruptly resigned his seat on the board of governors to pursue the job.

Backlash to Allison began almost as soon as he had applied, as word leaked that he was seeking the job, stoking concerns that a legitimate search process would be compromised by politics. That opposition has grown since the announcement, with an online petition to remove Allison gathering more than 1,700 signatures as of Tuesday. The FSU National Alumni Association scheduled an emergency meeting to discuss concerns about the selection process for Tuesday evening.

Allison does not have a doctorate and has no experience in teaching or administration in higher education. His credentials are largely as a lobbyist for K-12 charter schools and as an ally of, and political operative for, conservative causes and candidates.

Allison has served as a trustee at his alma mater, North Carolina Central University, and as a political appointee on the board of governors.

But compared with dozens of candidates, many of whom had held high level administrative positions in higher education for years, FSU trustees said Allison did not make the top five.

“We had some very, very impressive candidates,” one trustee said. “In that pool it would be difficult for anyone with [Allison’s] resume to make the top five… even the top ten, maybe.”

At a press conference to announce the choice last Thursday, Allison and FSU Board of Trustees Chairman Stuart Augustine avoided detailed questions about the search, citing the confidentiality of the process.

Stuart Augustine

Allison said he was not selected or inserted into the search but followed the traditional process after resigning from the board, a necessary step before applying for the chancellorship.

“I followed procedure, I followed protocol,” Allison said.

Allison said he understands skepticism of his appointment, calling it “somewhat unprecedented” for a UNC Board of Governors member to step down to apply for a job voted on by that very board. He had three more years left in his term, he said, and didn’t consider his appointment to be guaranteed. Still, he said, he chose to step down to avoid the regret he’d feel if he didn’t apply.

“All you have to do is talk to the very search committee members and they will tell you that Darrel Allison was thoroughly searched,” Allison said.

But members of the search committee and of the FSU board of trustees have been warned against answering questions on the process. Augustine, the head of the committee, was prevented from doing so during last week’s press conference, when university staff stepped in to stop him answering questions from reporters on the process.

“Our original goal was to cut the candidate list down to 10,” Augustine said before he was interrupted. “We couldn’t do it. The pool of candidates was that good. We were able to narrow it down to 15.”

Augustine nodded his head as though in agreement as reporters said Allison’s name wasn’t initially among the finalists to be submitted to the UNC system office. But as he began to describe the process, he was warned off going into detail and said he could only say Allison’s name ultimately did go to the system as a finalist.

How Allison became a finalist and how much trustees and members of the board of governors can discuss are open questions.

The confidentiality of search processes has regularly been flouted by various board members when they disagree with a choice, a source close to the process at the UNC System level told Policy Watch this week. They asked not to be identified in order to discuss the process, which they said they had been warned could be the subject of litigation.

“Western Carolina and ECU are just the latest examples where confidentiality wasn’t taken seriously even by [UNC Board of Governors] members and there were no lawsuits and no consequences” the UNC System source said. “But everyone involved in this process from the trustees to [the members of the board of governors] have been warned against talking publicly on this because it’s obvious that they got the result they wanted.”

“You can be sure that if they didn’t see the name they wanted on the final candidate list, they wouldn’t now be saying they can’t discuss the details,” the UNC System source said. “Anyone who has watched search processes in the past knows that.”

BOG members react

Allison’s former colleagues on the board of governors have also largely been silent since the announcement, declining to comment on a process that is supposed to be confidential.

Senior Isaiah Green is a non-voting member of the Board of Governors.

“I can’t comment on the process nor the chancellor search in general,” said Isaiah Green, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and president of the Association of Student Governments. Green is a non-voting member of the board of governors and worked with Allison on the racial equity task force.

“I have heard the blowback,” Green said of reaction to Allison’s appointment. “Like with every new chancellor and person in senior leadership, I am hoping Chancellor Allison will work collaboratively with the students on campus in the coming weeks and months. And since we’ve worked together I’m glad to help him in any way I can.”

Board of Governors member Marty Kotis didn’t vote on Allison’s appointment, having missed the meeting for personal reasons. Like other board members, he said he could not discuss the specifics of the chancellor search and Allison’s appointment. But in his time on the board, he said, the board has always voted for the choice of their “only employee” – the UNC System president, who submits a name to the board for approval.

The one high profile exception was a chancellor search at Western Carolina University in 2018. In that case, then-UNC System President Margaret Spellings was infuriated when her choice pulled out of contention after board member Tom Fetzer leaked the candidate’s information to a private firm in an attempt to prove they had lied in the application process. It was later revealed Fetzer had sought to be interim chancellor at Western Carolina and Spellings had gone with someone else.

After that controversy the board changed its policies to make resignation from the board necessary for those seeking a chancellorship in the system.

The controversy over Allison’s appointment has led to calls for a “cooling off period” of a year or more between resignation from the board and application for top leadership positions at system schools. Kotis said he would support that and believes there is the will on the board to make that change.

“We haven’t had this happen before,” Kotis said. “You make policies based on what you’ve experienced.”

Board of Governors member Marty Kotis didn’t vote on Allison’s appointment.

Generally, Kotis said, he is for the consideration of non-traditional candidates like Allison for leadership positions throughout the system. The important thing is ability and vision, Kotis said. He cited Allison’s willingness to argue passionately for what he believes in during board and committee discussions.

“We’ve argued and he’s changed my mind on some things,” Kotis said.

While he doesn’t expect Allison will be a rubber stamp for either the board of governors or the General Assembly, Kotis said he thinks Allison will bring fresh eyes to the leadership position at FSU and a willingness to be more politically neutral in his decisions.

Kotis cites outgoing FSU Chancellor James Anderson’s opposition to his school participating in the NC Promise program, which would offer tuition at $500 per semester. Anderson reflexively distrusted the Republican majority in the legislature and the board of governors, fearing that the program would devalue the school or that the legislature wouldn’t continue to fund it, Kotis said. Anderson changed his mind when the program was successful, Kotis said.

“That was short-sighted and I don’t think Darrell would have left that money on the table,” Kotis said. “He would have been looking at it as a benefit to the school and to students, increasing access for and keeping education as close to free as possible.”

New process, new precedent

Allison’s ascension to a chancellorship is a test case — and possibly a new precedent — in an ongoing campaign by the General Assembly and the UNC System office to fundamentally change the way chancellors are chosen.

As Policy Watch reported in July, UNC System President Peter Hans made changing the current chancellor search system one of his first orders of business.

Traditionally, a search committee made up of an individual school’s board of trustees conducts an independent chancellor search; in turn, it forwards at least two finalists to the UNC system president. The president then chooses a final candidate to submit for final approval by the UNC Board of Governors.

In July, before he had officially taken office, Hans proposed a change that would have allowed 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 to choose the final candidate from those finalists.

The proposed change divided the board, with a number of members saying it would essentially allow the system to disregard local search committees and boards of trustees. After a long debate, the board changed the proposal so that only one of the president’s hand-picked candidates would become an automatic finalist, not two. The board also announced that the new selection procesd would not apply to chancellor searches that were already underway at East Carolina University and FSU.

Shortly thereafter, Allison resigned to pursue FSU’s top leadership position.

Critics of the change — including trustees at NC A&T and FSU who spoke to Policy Watch when it was proposed — continue to express the belief that it is too much power to concentrate in the hands of the UNC System president. This week they said they don’t believe the system was as hands-off in the FSU search as it claimed.

T. Greg Doucette

“They said the new change wasn’t going to apply at ECU and FSU because they thought they were already going to get the results they wanted there,” said Durham attorney Greg Doucette, who was a UNC Board of Governors member during his time as president of the UNC System Association of Student Governments.

Doucette predicted Allison’s appointment as chancellor shortly after Allison resigned from the board. On Twitter, where Doucette regularly discusses UNC System news and politics with his more than 131,000 followers, he linked the appointment to Allison’s support of the UNC System’s settlement with the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans over the Silent Sam Confederate monument.

Allison was one of five UNC Board of Governors members who signed an op-ed that ran in the Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer describing their negotiation of the deal.  Earlier this month, court documents revealed it was not actually written by the board members and none of them directly participated in the negotiations they described.

 The deal, which gave the Confederate group the statue and more than $2.5 million, was later scrapped by the same Orange County Superior Court judge who initially approved it. It was an embarrassing episode for the board, but one during which Allison was at the center and was able to demonstrate political loyalty.

In his time on the board Allison was one of just three Black voting members. He also chaired the UNC Board of Governors Racial Equity Task Force. His participation provided a degree of political cover for the board, Doucette said — one of a number of political chips Allison built up during his close work with board members and the state GOP. Applicants who had not had the chance to forge those political allegiances and connections were naturally at a disadvantage, Doucette said.

That’s not the basis on which chancellors at UNC schools — and particularly at the state’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — have traditionally been appointed, Doucette said.

“If you look at Elizabeth City State, Dr. Karrie Dixon spent years in General Administration and worked for ten years at two other UNC schools,” Doucette said. “If you look at A&T, Harold Martin was chancellor at Winston-Salem State before he was named chancellor at A&T and worked for years in general administration. It’s just not a situation where the mere fact that you have political connections is what got you there.”

Allison’s qualifications simply don’t compare, Doucette said. But his appointment will likely be a precedent used by Hans and the board when selecting future chancellors. A school with a smaller enrollment, like Fayetteville State, is a good place to experiment with this sort of break in tradition, Doucette said, because it gets far less attention than a school like N.C. State or UNC-Chapel Hill.

“I think going forward this is how it’s going to work,” Doucette said.

Highly qualified, more independent university leaders may resist the board or side with their campus communities in political confrontations with UNC System, Doucette said  — particularly in high profile situations like the Silent Sam controversy or recent tensions over how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic on campuses.

Hand-picking people who are already political allies will help to avoid that, Doucette said, particularly former board members or state lawmakers who have demonstrated political fealty. That doesn’t bode well for the quality of future candidate pools, he said.

“You’re going to have qualified candidates who look at these openings and say, ‘I don’t have those North Carolina political connections,’’ Doucette said. “‘I’m not buddy-buddy with the Speaker of the House or Peter Hans, so I’m not going to bother to apply.’”

Instead, Doucette said, the system is likely to see a pipeline of former state lawmakers and well-connected lobbyists who see chancellorships as a viable next step after years of proving their political bona fides and establishing connections.

A trustee at FSU agreed with that assessment.

“You do a 50-state search and you get 60-plus applicants,” the trustee said. “And the decision is that the best possible person is someone who happens to have just left the UNC Board of Governors to seek this job. That person is then selected by the President of the UNC system, who the applicant voted into that job when he was a board member. Then the applicant is voted on by the board that he just left. Does anybody think that sounds like a system that is designed to objectively pick the best leader for any school? Would any intelligent person believe that?”

“At least they’re not just messing with Black folks this way.”

Jarrett Carter, editor of HBCU Digest

As editor of HBCU Digest, Jarrett Carter has been covering HBCUs across the country for more than a decade. To him, Allison’s appointment at FSU — and the larger shift it signals in how chancellors may be chosen at UNC System schools going forward — was predictable

In a July column, Carter pointed out that top-down appointments that circumvent traditional executive search processes have been going on at HBCUs for years.

“For years, Carolina along with other states have kind made it a common practice at HBCUs to just promote someone from within while other, sister institutions didn’t have to deal with that,” Carter said in an interview with Policy Watch this week. “Even if it ends up being someone from within, there’s typically a broader search.”

Too often that is not the case at HBCUs, Carter said. “They say, ‘The interim is going to be somebody from the system office’ and then 12 months later, that’s your president,” Carter said.

But executive positions at colleges and universities deserve a full and thorough executive search, Carter said. “You can’t treat colleges and universities like high schools,” he said said.

A high school principal, appointed by a school board, is responsible for the school building and its students and teachers, Carter said. But the chancellor of a university has to focus on an entire community, its needs, how it interacts with the school, local businesses and multi-million dollar contracts.

“This is a serious prospect and we often don’t approach it that way,” Carter said.

Even outside of the HBCU sector, Carter said, colleges and universities all over the country have long looked outside of academia to cast non-traditional candidates in leadership roles.

In some cases, the results have been positive. In the HBCU community, Carter points to Dr. Michael J. Sorrell, a lawyer and businessman who was initially ignored as a candidate the leadership of Paul Quinn College in Dallas. After taking the helm, Sorrel brought the troubled school back from the brink of insolvency.

“Now that school may be the face of what an HBCU should look like anywhere in the country,” Carter said.

But when looking at non-traditional candidates — and especially in choosing them over other, highly qualified candidates — it’s important to consider what unique skills they offer. It can’t simply be a way to justify a patronage system that awards plum jobs to political loyalists.

“If you’re going to go that route, you have to ask what makes that set of credentials a good fit? What makes Allison a good fit for Fayetteville State?”

Allison’s experience lobbying state lawmakers and working alongside members of the UNC Board of Governors may indeed end up being a boon to the school, Carter said. It could buy the school attention from a system where appropriations and recognition can depend on political skill and personal relationships. 

But if Hans and the board intend to take a heavy-handed, top-down approach to choosing leaders for schools across the system, Carter said they have to accept responsibility for what happens. If their chosen leaders succeed, they own that. But if they fail, they own that too.

HBCUs within larger state systems are accustomed to leaders being chosen for them from above, often without enough community input. The UNC System’s new policy, which allows the system president to insert finalists is just owning up to a system that already exists in too many cases, Carter says.

“I think that’s been going on for years and they’ve finally just put a policy behind it,” Carter said. “At least they’ve gone away from only doing this at HBCUs. They did it at ECU. They did it in a surreptitious way at Carolina. At least they have an actual ‘do it our way or else’ policy now for everybody.”

“At least they’re not just messing with Black folks this way,” Carter said. “At least you can say that.”

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.