One thread tying together many of the year’s stories: the abandoning of political norms.
In the wake of the tumultuous Trump era and a global pandemic that upended most aspects of American life, extremist groups and views once at the fringes have pushed into the mainstream — sometimes violently.
This worrisome trend was apparent beyond the renewed fervor for book banning and masked neo-Nazis disrupting drag performances at private venues. In North Carolina, it manifested in other ways small and large.
- The further abandoning of long-held political norms by those in power in higher education governance systems
- The cherry-picking and misrepresentation of academic research to further political agendas
- The mainstreaming of Christian nationalist views at the highest levels of the state Republican party
Today, we take a look back at some of those stories.
1) New light on behind-the-scenes political tactics in the UNC System
In March, Policy Watch finally received a trove of emails and communications about one of the biggest stories we broke last year — the refusal of a UNC Board of Governors committee to reappoint a widely respected UNC Law professor to the University of North Carolina Press Board of Governors.
Though widely respected and unanimously supported by his fellow board members, Muller had drawn the ire of UNC System leaders through commenting — in his role as a law professor — on the dubious legality of some controversial university and university system decisions.
The communications, provided more than nine months after Policy Watch requested them, shed new light on how board of governors members abandoned longstanding governance norms and used an increasingly frequent political tactic to avoid an up-or-down vote on an important issue.
Policy Watch’s coverage revealed a context and pattern of behavior among the overwhelmingly Republican political appointees on the UNC Board of Governors. Experts said this pattern not only concentrates decision-making power in even fewer hands by disrupting established systems of shared governance, but it also prevented public deliberation on controversial issues and allowed political appointees to get their way without having to publicly cast and own their votes.
From that story:
The committee didn’t vote to reject Muller. It simply chose not to vote on his nomination, effectively bottling it up in committee and preventing his appointment without ever actually having to go on record on the matter.
It was essentially the same political move used by a committee of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees to prevent a vote on offering tenure to acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. When the details were revealed, it generated national headlines and months of controversy for the university, ultimately leading Hannah-Jones to instead accept a position at Howard University.
“That kind of move is not a profile in courage,” said Brooks Fuller, attorney and director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition. “This is a similar pattern of behavior we’ve seen in some other personnel matters at the university, especially high profile ones that draw attention.”
This method of avoiding an up-or-down vote — or even public debate — on a controversial issue isn’t a new one, Fuller said. It’s common on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and on Jones Street in Raleigh, where many of the political appointees now serving on the UNC Board of Governors have served as operatives, lobbyists and state lawmakers. It’s the equivalent of a “pocket veto,” Fuller said, which in this case allows political appointees to force an outcome without the public knowing how or why they did so.
“It’s better for the people who serve North Carolina’s citizens to state and deliberate quite plainly what their justifications are for major decisions that come across their desk,” Fuller said. “This is a great example, where the public is left with nothing but a black box and questions.”
2) A new CEO for PBS NC — with no search or selection process
In September, UNC System President Peter Hans abandoned another decades-long norm by personally handpicking a new CEO for PBS NC without a national search or selection process.
Hans’s choice: longtime friend and former WRAL anchor David Crabtree, who he had tapped as interim leader for PBS NC pending a national search process five months earlier.
Some critics — including voices from inside PBS NC itself — said the choice was further evidence of conservative UNC System leadership concentrating decision-making power into fewer hands, doing away with input, buy-in and transparent processes. That’s a pattern that’s been apparent under Hans’ leadership, they said, and leads to less competition and diversity, and fewer checks on how major decisions are made for public institutions.
From that story:
The board broke precedent in hiring Crabtree, who will make $275,000 per year in his new role, by not conducting a national candidate search. Such a search isn’t required for the organization’s top executive – but it has been standard protocol for decades.
The original plan was to do a national search for candidates, but Hans said over the last few months he rethought that approach.
“As he settled into the role I began to ask myself, ‘Why in the world would we conduct a search for a new CEO and general manager when we have a seasoned manager and pro right here?’” Hans said.
“We’ve traditionally done a national search for a position that important to make sure we choose someone who can compete nationally and to be sure that we hire the very best that the market has to offer,” [State Sen. Gladys] Robinson said. “You can’t get the best candidate if you don’t compare them to other applicants.”
PBS NC, the four-channel public television network reaching all 100 of North Carolina counties was, until last year, known as UNC-TV. Reaching more than 14 million viewers in North Carolina and surrounding states, is the third-largest PBS member station in the nation and has an annual budget of about $30 million.
According to state statute, the UNC System president recommends the station’s CEO, and the UNC Board of Governors then votes on that person. But for the past 30 years, the system has held national searches for the position. Taking that step reduced the likelihood of cronyism or political patronage in executive level hires, Robinson said.
“You’re looking for the best possible hire that you can get anywhere,” Robinson said. “This shouldn’t be a situation where you just hire someone you know, that you’re comfortable with, maybe someone you are friendly with and who has a good reputation. That’s not how this process should work.”
Crabtree himself did not return calls or emails from Policy Watch.
3) Studying — and weaponizing — student views on campus speech
Two years ago, Policy Watch began reporting on a single-campus study of student attitudes toward campus speech and expression at UNC-Chapel Hill. This year, after the study was expanded to eight UNC System campuses and more than 3,400 students, we sat down with the co-authors to talk about what the results said, didn’t say, and how they were being politicized even before the full, expanded study was released.
From that story:
One of the findings that got the most attention in the 2019 study was that conservative students tend to self-censor more on campus than students identifying as moderate or liberal.
Republican lawmakers seized on that part of the report, citing it a number of times in political disputes with students, faculty and administrators.
In September of last year, a group of faculty members, staff, students and alumni announced the launch of the Coalition for Carolina, an effort to combat what they describe as a years-long pattern of political meddling and overreach by the Republican dominated General Assembly into university affairs.
The office of Republican state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger fired back, using the UNC-Chapel Hill study as ammunition.
“These perpetual malcontents should examine why 68% of conservative students at UNC reported self-censoring their views in class,” said Lauren Horsch, Berger’s spokeswoman, in a statement. “Perhaps it has something to do with top university staff putting to paper their desire to extinguish viewpoint diversity.”
Faculty members and administrators denied they had any desire to eliminate viewpoint diversity and said the study didn’t back up the attack — most students did not report censoring themselves for fear of the views of faculty or staff but because they feared they would be ostracized by their peers.
Ryan and his team said they were displeased with the way their research was cherry-picked for political purposes, but that is not uncommon in research touching on political issues.
“I did see that quote and I was disappointed by it,” Ryan said of the statement from Berger’s office. “The full report is there for him to be asked a tough question the next time he’s talking about it. If you think this report is so credible, what’s your thought on the rest of it?”
Larson said it was obvious people only concentrating on that stat had not read the full report.
“Or if they did, they didn’t read it carefully,” Larson said. “You can cherry-pick anything, but to me the counter argument is so clear. If you’re concerned about this one part of the report, what do you think about the other parts of it? Do you acknowledge they are valid?”
4) Bipartisan pushback on political overreach in the UNC System
This year the continued political overreach and the abandoning of political norms in the UNC system reached the point that both Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and some of the most conservative GOP political appointees on the UNC Board of Governors were compelled to call it out.
In July, Policy Watch wrote about Republican board of governors members complaining the board itself was bypassed and ignored in the GOP edict that the UNC System would move from its traditional home in Chapel Hill to the seat of state political power in Raleigh.
From that story:
After six years on the UNC Board of Governors, Leo Daughtry is moving to the State Board of Transportation.
It wasn’t a move he sought, Daughtry said. But House leaders offered him a spot on the transportation board and he believed it was time to leave the Board of Governors. He will be replaced by Lee Barnes, CEO of the Family Fare chain of stores, who was chosen by lawmakers to finish Daughtry’s term, which runs to 2025.
The change, part of a political appointments bill passed at the end of the legislative session, was probably inevitable after Daughtry said publicly something a number of board members privately say they also believe: The plan to move the UNC System offices to downtown Raleigh is expensive, ill-considered and motivated primarily by politics.
In a phone interview, Daughtry declined to address whether political conflict was at the heart of his change in appointment. But he stands by his concerns about the relocation to Raleigh.
“It was time for me to move on,” Daughtry said. “I’m off that board now and I don’t want to be critical. I said what I needed to say.”
Daughtry was a long-time GOP leader in both the state Senate and House before his service on the Board of Governors. In May, he denounced the planned move to Raleigh for a lack of transparency and bemoaned the trend toward politicization of the system he said it represents.
The move has been talked about for more than a decade and seemed closer than ever to reality last year when the state budget allocated $1.8 million to study the possibility of moving to a new building complex; the budget earmarked another $11.4 million related to planning and design related to the move.
But the most recent budget bill, signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper Monday, mandates the move before July 1, 2023. The budget item appropriates $15 million toward leasing space in Raleigh over the next four years. It also lays out plans and provides funding for a future $180 million downtown Education Campus to include the Department of Commerce, Department of Public Instruction, Community Colleges System and UNC System offices.
The bill proposes building the new campus at 116 W. Jones St., where the state’s Department of Administration now resides. That department would be relocated to a newly proposed state executive headquarters.
The plan moves the university system offices from the traditional home of higher education in North Carolina, Chapel Hill — where UNC was founded as the nation’s first state supported university in 1789 — to the state’s center of political power, just down the street from the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh. After more than a decade of criticism that Republican lawmakers have micro-managed and overly politicized the 16-campus system, the move is too audacious for even some conservative former lawmakers and system leaders.
Art Pope, a GOP mega-donor who was deputy state budget director under Gov. Pat McCrory, agreed with Daughtry that the way the legislature conceived and passed the plan amounts to bad politics — and perhaps bad policy.
“This special provision did not go through any legislative committee,” Pope said at the meeting. “It was not in any filed bill. It appeared for the first time in the final conference report. Not the first time, not the last time that happens. But when law is made, when special budget provisions are made this way, oftentimes it’s not the best legislation or the best practice.”
Years’ worth of political controversies and systemic abandoning of political norms within the UNC System moved Gov. Cooper to announce a bipartisan commission to study its governance. The commission, announced last month, will be co-chaired by two former UNC System Presidents — Margaret Spellings and Tom Ross. Spellings and Ross, a Republican and Democrat respectively, both had first-hand experience with partisan political influence at the board of governors level.
Though it is difficult to imagine more qualified or respected co-chairs for such a task force, the group and its work have already been dismissed by state GOP legislative leaders.
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.
“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.
5) GOP leaders embracing Christian nationalism
For the last few years, Policy Watch has been following a group called The American Renewal Project. Its explicitly stated goals: to eliminate the concept of a separation between church and state, enforcing its brand of fundamentalist Christianity on American society at-large through the election of Christian pastors to political offices at all levels, and mandating Christian education and prayer in public schools.
The group started as a fringe group which saw the Republican Party and even other evangelical Christian groups as too soft on everything from LGBTQ rights to whether non-Christians had any place in government. But it was embraced by a wave of evangelical candidates, some of whom it helped to elevate, and some of whom gave the group greater access to the halls of government power than it had ever known.
In North Carolina, high-profile Republicans like former Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and then-Congressmen Mark Walker and Madison Cawthorn embraced the group and helped increase its reach. Forest lost his bid to unseat Gov. Roy Cooper in 2020 and both Walker and Cawthorn fell to more mainstream Republican candidates in 2022 primaries. But this year, the group’s NC arm — the North Carolina Renewal Project could still count on Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson to headline events for it across the state.
Though Robinson’s fire-and-brimstone speeches denouncing LGBTQ people as “filth” caused multiple controversies as he teased a run for governor, he doubled down with a series of explosive statements insulting women, higher education and even other Christian churches and their pastors. In speeches at Renewal Project events, Robinson promoted an error-ridden alternative history of the creation of the King James Bible and the protestant movement within Christianity, and suggested righteous Christians should follow the violent and confrontational methods now used by neo-Nazi groups and the far-right militia group The Proud Boys.
In a series of stories reported over several months, Policy Watch went beyond Robinson’s outrageous and confrontational statements to take a look at the Renewal Project itself, its activities and allies. Among them: Michael Whatley, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, who joined several GOP candidates to speak at Renewal Project events in the run-up to the election. Political experts told Policy Watch the group’s activities blur what was once a more solid line between the work of churches that of partisan political groups and that its rhetoric is textbook Christian nationalism.
From our October story:
Though held in churches, the Renewal Project’s recent events more closely resemble GOP political rallies. That includes campaign ads for Republican candidates, explicit endorsements of specific Republicans on the ballot this year, and a special message from former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a politician known more for his bare-knuckle brand of conservative politics than his religious convictions.
“It goes back to the Reagan coalition of the modern Republican party,” said Michael Bitzer, professor of history and political science at Catawba College. “Social conservatives got their oats really fed into the Republican dynamic. Republican candidates sought them out, sought to bring in evangelicals.”
The Renewal Project is being embraced by the GOP mainstream that once held it at arm’s length. Michael Whatley, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, spoke at two Renewal Project events — including the gathering at Cross Assembly in Raleigh.
Whatley was clear about the Renewal Project’s appeal to Republicans in the state.
“You know, half of evangelicals in North Carolina are not even registered to vote,” Whatley told the gathered pastors in the worship hall.
“Think about it,” Whatley said. “You know how to speak in public. You’re great at herding cats. God knows you know how to raise money. You’re perfect candidates!”
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