Weathering political controversies, UNC System president reaps incentive bonus

By: - July 21, 2022 6:00 am
UNC System President Peter Hans

The UNC Board of Governors approved a bonus of $451,200 for UNC System President Peter Hans Wednesday, which board members said reflects the “exceptional job” Hans continues to do for the UNC System.

The one-time payment to Hans’s Senior Administrative Officer Retirement Account is in line with an incentive scheme under which he was hired in June 2020.

At the time, Hans — who had served as president of the NC Community College System for about two years — accepted a base salary of $400,000. That was dramatically lower than previous system president Margaret Spellings ($788,470) or his immediate predecessor, interim system president Bill Roper ($775,000).

Under a compensation plan heavily favoring incentive bonuses, Hans was eligible for 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.

The board’s Presidential Assessment Committee determined Hans had met nearly 70% of the goals the board set for him last year, board Chair Randy Ramsey said Wednesday.

Hans didn’t attend Wednesday’s special session of the board. He’s traveling to Israel this week with other American education leaders. But Ramsey praised Hans’s work over the last year on a range of issues.

Weathering pandemic controversies

“President Hans continues to do an exceptional job for the UNC system,” Ramsey said Wednesday. “Despite the challenges of the end of the year COVID surge last fall and again this spring, President Hans kept our campuses focused on our educational mission, offering on-campus, in-person instruction throughout the entire academic year.”

The COVID-19 pandemic — and the UNC System’s failed plan to return students to campuses with dorms at maximum capacity in the fall of 2020 — generated enormous public controversy and tension among system leaders at the outset of Hans’s tenure as president. The largest of the state’s universities ended up sending students home just a week after they arrived as schools were overwhelmed with clusters of infections with no vaccine yet available.

Chancellors faced pressure from the board and the system office to keep students on campus and to return them as quickly as possible, igniting criticism from students, faculty, staff, alumni and public health officials. Controversies over poorly functioning COVID reporting dashboards and infection information that wasn’t shared with the general public also dominated that early pandemic period.

Since vaccines have become widely available, the system has had more luck returning students to campus, though Hans resisted calls from former state health directors to mandate vaccinations for UNC system students, as was done at a number of peer institutions.

Even encouraging vaccination, as Hans did publicly, was politically controversial as some of the state’s highest-ranking Republican political leaders and conservative activists blasted anyone suggesting vaccination.

In a video that made the rounds online, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson told a crowd at a conservative event it is not the job of elected officials to encourage people to take a vaccine and that those doing so should be voted out of office.

The most powerful elected GOP leaders in the state — House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) — were among the prominent Republicans who have encouraged vaccination as the best method of beating COVID-19. Hans stood with them, calling vaccination “our best weapon against the virus” and saying the system would “continue to encourage and incentivize every eligible person to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

Political skills, political advocacy

When Hans was hired, both Republican and Democratic state leaders praised his political savvy and ability to stay above the frays in Chapel Hill and Raleigh.

Though Hans spent several years in the 1990s as a Republican congressional aide, a political consultant and registered lobbyist, he also served on the UNC Board of Governors from 2003 to 2014. He was chairman of the board from 2012 to 2014.

For most of those years, Democrats controlled state government. Hans managed to navigate a much less politically volatile board and legislature during that period, becoming an advisor to Spellings before taking the helm of the community college system.

On Wednesday, Ramsey praised Hans’s ability to work with a now Republican-dominated state legislature.

Board Chair Randy Ramsey (Photo: Screen grab from UNC BoG meeting/UNC)

“His advocacy at the General Assembly, through a very long legislative session last year and again during this year’s short session, gave our citizens the most successful back-to-back state budgets we’ve ever seen,” Ramsey said. “In both budgets, all key priorities were funded and the legislature made historic investments in our campus facilities.”

The last two budgets put in motion the impending relocation of the UNC System from its traditional home in Chapel Hill to the state’s political center in Raleigh. That’s a move resisted by previous system presidents and boards of governors and strongly criticized by some of the board’s current members, among them conservative former lawmakers.

Leo Daughtry, a former GOP state lawmaker who abruptly resigned his seat on the board of governors earlier this month, publicly criticized the board and state legislators for the move, which he said was indicative of the board’s recent failure to provide a sufficient buffer between politics and the university system.

“Recently, it seems to me, politics is beginning to seep underneath our buffer,” Daughtry said. “We’ve hired people from state government who were making a little over $100,000 and are now making $300,000. We have a political operative, as I understand it, on a monthly retainer. But this particular issue is, in my opinion, the most political thing that has happened.”

But Ramsey said Hans’s strong connections in Raleigh — and a leadership team that has been criticized by some as too political — have paid dividends for the system, its 16 campuses and state residents.

“President Hans has maintained an exceptionally strong leadership team and aggressively pushed forward several major policy changes and initiatives,” Ramsey said. “He successfully launched Project Kitty Hawk, the ed tech initiative that will change how we deliver degree programs to adult learners and our military. He has implemented an all-funds budget process which has brought increased transparency to both the campus and system office budgets.”

“Based on the president’s recommendation, this board has kept in-state undergraduate tuition flat for the sixth straight year,” Ramsey said. “He’s worked to simplify and consolidate student financial aid programs and to give students and their families easier access to those resources.”

Some major policy changes Hans has advocated for have been controversial.

One of his first moves, even before he took office, was to push for a change to the way chancellors at individual universities are chosen.

Traditionally, a search committee made up of an individual school’s board of trustees conducted an independent chancellor search and then forwarded at least two finalists to the UNC system president. The president then chose a final candidate to submit for final approval by the Board of Governors.

In July 2020, 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 process would not apply to chancellor searches that were already underway at East Carolina University and Fayetteville State University.

Shortly thereafter, UNC Board of Governors member Darrell Allison — who had voted for the change — resigned his board seat to pursue the chancellor’s position at FSU. The move was unprecedented and controversial.

Though members of the search committee said Allison’s name was not among the top choices it initially submitted to the board of trustees, he ultimately got the job.

Trustees, faculty, students and alumni at the school criticized and protested the decision, the details of which board members were prevented from discussing publicly. FSU Trustees, asking not to be identified to avoid political reprisal, told Policy Watch that Allison was the clear choice of the board and Hans, so they were pressured to accept him.

“You do a 50-state search and you get 60-plus applicants,” one FSU trustee told Policy Watch at the time. “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?”

“It’s about reality”

On Wednesday, UNC Board of Governors members told Policy Watch that Hans’s tenure has been less chaotic than some of his recent predecessors and has been a measurable success.

The board members asked not to be identified so they could frankly discuss Hans’s tenure and closed-session assessments of his performance.

“When you look at Spellings, even when you look at Roper, they had conflicts on the board and they made decisions that did not always go over well in Raleigh,” one board member said Wednesday. “You have a lot less of that with Peter because he understand the role he is being asked to play and he is playing that role as well as anybody could, I think. It’s not in his personality to get into a tug-of-war and when this board or the General Assembly give him direction, he goes out and he executes the plays that are called.”

That may open Hans to criticism that he is a political pawn, the board member said, but neither he nor the board are worried about that.

“This has always been a political system and a political position,” the board member said. “I think Peter understands that and other people do too. It’s about reality.”

Hans’s near half-million dollar incentive bonus is an example of his savvy and his drive, the board member said.

“It’s smart to say, ‘I’ll take less salary up front and if I do the things you set out for me, I’ll take my compensation based on that,’” the board member said. “When you do that you automatically let people know what you’re about and you set yourself up to work hard to achieve those objectives. Peter has and he deserves to be rewarded for it.”

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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.