Gov. Cooper’s new commission will study how the UNC System is governed, but change is unlikely

By: - November 3, 2022 12:00 pm

Former UNC President Margaret Spellings

After years of conflict and controversy within the UNC System, a bipartisan commission will study its governance, but without the power to implement changes, it’s unclear what impact the commission’s work will have.

On Tuesday Gov. Roy Cooper announced the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina, created by executive order. It will be headed by former UNC System presidents Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings, a prominent Democrat and Republican, respectively.

“North Carolina’s public universities are our most valuable assets,” Cooper said in a statement. “And the key to building a stronger economy with opportunity for everyone and they need serious, diverse leadership committed to working together for the good of our students, faculty, future employers and our state.”

“Seeking unbiased review and recommendations on proposed reform from bipartisan leaders with first-hand experience building our great universities will ensure the UNC System’s continued success,” Cooper said. “And I appreciate President Ross’s and President Spellings’s willingness to lead this commission.”

Ross and Spellings bring with them plentiful personal experience of the system.

Ross, who took office in 2011, was ousted from his position in 2015 by a new Republican majority on the UNC System Board of Governors. While the board gave no explanation for removing Ross, they said it was unrelated to his performance. 

Spellings, who served as U.S. Secretary of Education under former President George W. Bush, was chosen by the board to replace Ross. But after a series of conflicts with board members and criticism from conservatives that she was too independent, she stepped down halfway through a five-year contract.

Former UNC System President Tom Ross

“Our government and our institutions are strengthened by a periodic review of our structures, our priorities and our commitment,” Spellings said Tuesday. “And I look forward to working with the members of this task force to consider the issues before us and make recommendations to the Governor and other policymakers. I am pleased to be a part of this effort because I strongly believe in the centrality and criticality of our institutions and especially our universities to serve all people as engines of prosperity and the public good.”

Ross agreed. “The University of North Carolina System is an unparalleled asset for our state,” Ross said. “And a comprehensive review to ensure that our governance structure is designed to enhance these institutions and meet the rapidly changing demands of the future is the right thing to do.”

The 15-member commission, appointed by the governor, doesn’t have the power to change the UNC system or its governance. Neither does Cooper’s office. But Cooper said the commission, whose other members will be named in the next few weeks, will provide recommendations to the legislature within the next eight months.

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) wasted no time dismissing the commission and its recommendation, issuing a statement Tuesday saying the legislature has no interest in making changes to the UNC System “regardless of whatever report this politically motivated commission produces.”

Moore has been personally implicated in a series of incidents involving political pressure in the UNC System and at its campuses, most recently allegations he pushed UNC-Wilmington trustees to name an old friend chancellor there.

His dismissal of the commission before its work has begun is not unusual, given the fraught political atmosphere that has engulfed the system for more than a decade.

A political history

Every member of the UNC System’s board of governors is a political appointee, chosen by the majority party at the General Assembly. For many years that was the Democratic party.

There were disagreements, scandals and tensions between the universities, their leaders, Democratic political appointees and the Democratic leaders of the legislature who appointed them. 

But prominent Democrats and Republicans served together in roughly equal measure on the board, including current UNC System President Peter Hans, a well-connected Republican who served on the board during this period.

Hans, who once worked as a congressional aide, a political consultant, registered lobbyist and senior policy advisor to U.S. Senators Lauch Faircloth (R) and Richard Burr (R), is now unaffiliated.

Then, in 2010, Republicans won majorities in both the state House and the state Senate for the first time since 1870. Two years later, Republican Pat McCrory won the governor’s race as well. The result was dramatic change throughout state government, including the 16-campus university system that has long struggled to stay above the political fray.

In addition to dismissing Ross without explanation, the board eliminated three academic centers: the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at UNC Chapel Hill; the Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University; and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at NC Central. 

The board barred the UNC Center for Civil Rights from litigating or representing clients, with members saying they didn’t want the center suing state and local governments for civil rights violations.

Perhaps most consequentially, the legislature’s GOP majority began purging Democrats from the board. For years thereafter, the board’s members included only registered Republicans and politically unaffiliated members, many with strong ties to conservative groups and causes. 

Among the appointees were former heads of the North Carolina Republican party, Republican politicians who had just left the state legislature and current, active Republican lobbyists whose livelihoods depended in large measure upon the legislature that appointed them.

After years of criticism over the highly partisan composition of the board, the legislature appointed one Democrat last year. That lone Democrat is Joel Ford, a former state senator who lost his Democratic primary after voting with Republicans on a series of controversial issues and saying he was considering joining the GOP.

Of the 24 members now on the board, just six are women and four are people of color.

When McCrory lost to Cooper in 2016, the GOP legislature stripped the governor’s office of a number of powers and prerogatives before Cooper – a Democrat – could take the office. Among them was the ability to appoint trustees at individual UNC system campuses, putting that power solely in the hands of the GOP majority in the legislature.

Today, the only campuses whose boards have more Democratic trustees than Republican are the system’s historically Black colleges and universities. 

That one-party control of the entire system didn’t sit well even with some Republican appointees on the board of governors itself.

In 2020, while still serving on the board, former board chair Lou Bissette criticized his own board and the legislature for the hard shift toward partisanship.

“When I first started serving, Democrats and Republicans were just about equally represented on the Board of Governors,” Bissette wrote in an essay for the group Higher Ed Works. “It functioned effectively. But today, the Board has no Democrats. That is simply not representative of our state and of the citizens we serve.”

Appointments to governing boards – and how they are made – will be one of the issues the new commission examines, Cooper said Tuesday.

Bissette, a lifelong Republican, also criticized the relationship between the board of governors and the legislature as too close to allow for independence.

From his essay:

[A] perfect Board of Governors is one that is independent, or as close to independent as a public body can be. Our universities should be held accountable, but governing boards do not exist to serve as oversight committees for the legislature.

The University System’s Board of Governors owes its fiduciary duty to the System. Its duty of loyalty is to the institution it represents, not the institution that appoints its members, the General Assembly.

Who appoints those members is also important. A perfect board would have its appointment power spread out as much as possible. In the past, the executive branch of our state government had a hand in appointing Board of Trustees members, and most folks agree it was a healthy way to be sure differing views were heard. No single entity should have total control over boards as important as these.

In addition, each member of the Board of Governors must be as independent as possible. They must be able to tell the General Assembly “no” when the University’s interests don’t totally align with the Legislature’s.

That means Board Members’ careers and professional interests shouldn’t be financially reliant on the General Assembly. If you are a lobbyist, or your business relies on state contracts, you’re probably not the best person for the Board of Governors.”

Bissette’s criticism infuriated some of his fellow board members and GOP legislators. But since he published his essay, the board and legislature have become more intertwined, exhibiting even less independence.

Recently, some of the board’s most conservative members opposed a legislative mandate to move the UNC System office from its historic home in Chapel Hill to Raleigh, the seat of political power in the state. Lobbyists on the board have joked in meetings they’ll be happy to do less driving to go directly from the offices of legislative leaders to the UNC System.

It’s a move that has been floated and studied for years, with the board of governors weighing in against it. The board’s position carried little weight with the legislature in the end.

Art Pope, a member of the Board of Governors and GOP mega-donor, said the expense associated with the move — $15 million to lease space over the next four years and a total price tag that could be north of $100 million — is simply unnecessary.

“The simple fact of the matter is, we have space here,” Pope said. “It’s not costing us $15 million over the next four years to continue here. That’s $15 million over the next four years that’s not going to be available to meet the needs of the people of North Carolina in general and for education in particular.”

Beyond the financial hit, Pope said, the way the legislature finally implemented the plan without the board’s input or even proper debate during the budget process is a problem.

“As a board of governors, most of us never even heard about it until we read about it in the newspaper,” Pope said. “We were never consulted ahead of time. We were never in a position to advise the General Assembly.”

Politics in the spotlight

In the last few years, a series of high profile political controversies have thrown a national spotlight on the UNC System and its governance.

The toppling of a Confederate monument on the system’s flagship campus of UNC-Chapel Hill devolved into a series of scandals in which the board of governors made a secret multi-million dollar deal — ultimately invalidated by a state court — with a neo-Confederate group.

Under pressure from conservative legislators and the Board of Governors, the system’s largest campuses attempted to send students back to full-capacity dorms in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, amid record infections. The result: overwhelming clusters of infections that shut the campuses down with the first week. Policy Watch’s reporting revealed that officials at UNC-Chapel Hill ignored warnings from Orange County public health officials in doing so.

Last year, the controversy over the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees’ refusal to vote on tenure for Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones exposed unprecedented political and donor influence in faculty hires. Students, faculty and alumni rallied around Hannah-Jones, forcing a board vote to approve her tenure. Stung by the process and disappointed by the response of university leadership, Hannah-Jones took a position with Howard University instead.

All those controversies — and an increase in partisan political pressure at campuses across the system — led the American Association of University Professors to formally condemn the system earlier this year.

Will Fullwood, a transitional math instructor at Wake Technical Community College, is the new president of the association’s North Carolina conference. He said the commission is a good first step in addressing problems his group has identified.

“We appreciate the bipartisan nature of this commission,” Fulton said. “We appreciate that Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings, former presidents of the UNC System, are coming together and are going to be involved.”

“There’s such a large range of problems across the system and it undermines the public trust,” Fullwood said. “We hope we’ll be able to partner with them and help them, give them access to faculty, access to what our investigations have already revealed about the broken governance, the violations of academic freedom, the patterns of institutional racism and the political interference the system has been dealing with.”

It’s not a surprise Republican legislative leaders immediately dismissed the commission, Fullwood said. He still hopes the legislature will consider its recommendations.

“I guess we’re going to have to wait and see,” Fullwood said. “But the UNC System is important. They say they care about it. If it continues to be run this way, it’s going to continue to decline. Hopefully with people from both sides of the aisle trying to find solutions, that’s going to make it harder to just dismiss.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story referred to UNC System President Peter Hans as a Republican. It has been corrected to make clear that while Hans was once a well connected Republican who worked in GOP political offices, he is now unaffiliated.

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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.