‘Good, serious ideas’: Commission on university governance talks transparency, amplifying student voices

By: - March 14, 2023 12:00 pm

Commission members Tom Ross, current UNC Board of Governors member John Fraley, N.C. Senator Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) and John Townsend. (Photo: Joe Killian)

Should students and faculty have more prominent voices on boards of trustees at UNC System schools? Should the system’s board of governors elect members geographically, be more transparent and open to public input? And would any of these suggestions matter to a Republican dominated legislature resistant to such changes?

These were a few of the questions members of the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina tackled in its third public listening session on Monday. The session, held at the Charlotte Area Chamber of Commerce, drew a sparse but vocal crowd — typical of the listening sessions held so far.

The commission, which Gov. Roy Cooper created through executive order in November, has deliberately avoided holding its listening sessions on UNC system campuses, said co-chair Tom Ross.

“I think there was an effort not to be on university campuses so we’d be reaching out to the broader public,” said Ross, a former UNC System president who chairs the commission with fellow former president Margaret Spellings. “We’ve heard from representatives of the faculty, staff and students.”

But those who have attended and spoken at the sessions so far have tended toward faculty members and staffers at UNC System campuses near where the sessions have been held.

Four of the commission’s fifteen members attended Monday’s listening session: Ross; current UNC Board of Governors member John Fraley; state Senator Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) and John Townsend, a former member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and current chair of that campus’ capital campaign.

Those members outnumbered the three members of the public who attended the 9 a.m. session in person. Though the meeting was attended online by a few more people, they experienced connection and audio problems and did not directly participate in the session.

“Political payback”

Those who did attend had plenty to say.

Susan Harden, president of the faculty council at UNC-Charlotte (Photo: Joe Killian)

A central problem with university governance is that it doesn’t feel open to everyone, said Susan Harden, president of the faculty council at UNC-Charlotte. How board members are chosen and elected by the General Assembly is opaque, Harden said, and the membership sends a signal to those who may want to serve.

“I think the process feels like it’s political payback right now,” Harden said. “So that one of the things I think we should do is bring back the sense that people have a fair shot to get appointed.”

“There’s a sense that there is a path forward, if you want to serve on the board of governors or a board of trustees, that there’s a path forward to do that for lots of different people,” Harden said. “It feels like board membership is not accessible to the typical person or even the typical corporate leader, that you have to know someone who can appoint you and again, that appointment is not about qualifications.”

The UNC Board of Governors, in particular, has for years faced criticism that its membership doesn’t reflect the state or even the state’s universities. It is more heavily white, male and Republican than the state is generally and has included a long list of GOP lobbyists, former Republican lawmakers and former GOP party leaders. The Republican dominated legislature, which appoints the board’s members, purged the board of any Democrats for years. Now there is just one serving on the board — Joel Ford, a former state senator who lost his Democratic primary after frequently voting with Republicans and publicly considering joining the GOP.

Harden said the public perception of the board and its membership needs to change.

“If you make it a robust and authentic thing, people will want to do it,” she said.

The boards of trustees at individual universities tend to be more diverse — particularly at the system’s HBCUs. But even those appointments have become more partisan. In 2016, when Republican Governor Pat McCrory was defeated by Cooper, the GOP majority in the state legislature moved quickly to strip the governor’s office of its shared power to appoint trustees — something it hadn’t considered necessary under a Republican governor.

Mike Clement, an alum of UNC-Chapel Hill, told commission members there should be more attention paid to qualifications, geography and connection to the system and its universities than to partisanship.

“As I look at the board of trustees and board of governors I think we need to bring diversity, including a diversity of experiences, to these boards,” Clement said. “People who are well versed in finance, who are well versed in real estate, people who understand academics.”

“What I don’t think should serve as a qualification is whether or not you win a race,” Clement said. “I don’t think party affiliation should serve as a qualification.”

Harry Brown (L) and “Woody” White (R)

On Tuesday morning the state Senate Select Committee on Nominations met to consider four reappointments and two new appointments to the board.

The two new nominees are both white, male Republicans who formerly served in the North Carolina Senate. Harry Brown served there for 16 years and is a former majority leader. Haywood “Woody” White served in the senate and on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, where he was chairman. In 2014 he mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination for the 7th district U.S. House seat.

Robinson, a member of the nominating committee, objected to the fact that no women or racial or ethnic minorities were put forward. She cited the work of the commission, which also counts state House Majority Leader John Bell (R-Wayne) among its members, and encouraged her Republican colleagues to embrace the idea that the board would benefit from more diversity.

“This is a very diverse state,” Robinson said. “The UNC system is a very diverse system.”

No one on the committee replied and they adjourned the meeting after just over ten minutes.

Student and faculty voices where they matter most

Students, those most directly impacted by decisions made on governing boards, do have a voice on them — though one that is not as clear and strong as they have wanted for decades.

Today, Kevin Monroe is deputy director for Intergovernmental Affairs in the Cooper administration. But 40 years ago he was student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill. That’s a voting position on many individual boards of trustees, Monroe told commission members Monday. But the student representative on the UNC Board of Governors is the president of the UNC Association of Student Governments. That person doesn’t get a vote on the UNC system’s governing board.

Monroe said he’d suggest changing that, giving students a real seat at the table in system governance.

“That’s just amplifying the student voice,” Monroe said.

Many student bodies now have separate representatives for their graduate student populations, Monroe said. Including them would also be a good move as demographic shifts lead to the enrollment of fewer undergraduates and schools push to appeal to more graduate students.

Even creating a few non-voting seats for graduate students could go a long way to bringing their voices into the process, he said.

“[Grad students] have often been around the block and have more real-world experience,” Monroe said.

More faculty voices are also important in questions of governance, Harden said.

“I am invited by my chancellor to address the board of trustees as faculty president of UNC-Charlotte,” Harden said. “But many of my colleagues across the system are not. So ensuring there are regular and formal opportunities for faculty and staff to address leaders, I think, makes for better participation and better governance.”

It’s also worth considering expanding student seats on these boards to include faculty and staff, Harden said.

Transparency is also important to the general public — beyond just students, faculty and staff — feeling that they matter to university governance, Harden said. Right now, it’s difficult to feel the system’s board of governors is transparent and accessible, she said. She noted that the members’ contact information isn’t even available on the board website next to their names and the only way to contact the board is through an online form. It isn’t clear who that goes to or whether board members actually see it, she said. Open forums for public comments at board of governors’ meetings, which were once standard, have been eliminated and there is no time for comments from the public as there sometimes is at trustee meetings.

Fraley, a current member of the board, said when public forums were held on meeting days they weren’t well attended and even some of those who signed up to speak didn’t show up.

Suggesting that board members should all have institutional emails that are publicly accessible is something that’s been discussed for years, Ross said, and may be worth revisiting in the commission’s report to the governor.

Is change possible — and when?

The commission will deliver its report to the governor by June. But the question looming over every meeting and listening session has been “will it matter?”

The governor doesn’t have the power to make changes to the UNC system, its governing boards or their makeup. That’s the province of the General Assembly — and its leaders don’t seem eager to hear suggestions.

UNC Board of Governors member John Fraley

State House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) denounced the commission’s work as a partisan exercise almost as soon as it had been announced. Before the members of the commission had been named, Moore said the legislature was not interested in making changes.

However, members of the commission — including some sitting and former Republican lawmakers — said they hope the report will be received with an open mind.

“I would say that if we put forward serious things to consider, they’ll be considered,” said Fraley, a former Republican House member. “The relationships that I’ve got with people in the legislature — they’re serious people who will think about serious things. If you want to go in and do a complete 180 degree change on things, not going to happen.”

“Now does that mean they’ll be enacted upon in this session or the next session?” Fraley said. “I don’t know.”

Townsend agreed.

“I think if we deliver serious recommendations and they’re articulated in a serious way, where they stand on their own, they deserve to be heard and we’ll demonstrate that they deserve to be heard,” Townsend said. “That will attract open-minded people.”

The report could have impacts beyond North Carolina, Townsend said.

“We’ve cataloged every state’s approach and it ranges dramatically,” he said. “But this is becoming more topical by the day. You can pick up the newspaper and read people’s opinions about what’s going on in higher education in Florida, for example.”

Robinson said she shares the hope that the report will be considered on its merits and have the intended impact.

Sen. Gladys Robinson

“Being a sitting member of the General Assembly…I think what you’re talking about is people’s thought that this is the governor’s commission,” Robinson said. “That is what’s blinding folks, some of the legislators, right now.”

That may change when they produce the actual report, she said.

Some Republican lawmakers have been open to some of her suggestions in private conversations, she said.

“Having the minority party with some appointments, some of the Republicans have said maybe that sounds like a good idea,” Robinson said. “So people aren’t closed to it, some of the people that I’ve been talking to.”

It’s worth remembering that not every commission’s suggestions spark change right away, Ross said. Some of the commissions of which he’s been a member produced work that led to immediate change to address a crisis — prison reforms, for instance. But some important changes came years later, he said.

“There were ideas brought up that didn’t land right away,” Ross said. “But over time, if you present good, serious ideas, they do.”

The commission’s next listening session will be in Greenville on March 20 at Pitt Community College, followed by an April 4 listening session in Greensboro at Guilford Technical Community College. More details on those meetings here.

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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.