Governor’s commission suggests expanding, diversifying UNC Board of Governors

The GOP majority in the General Assembly is not likely to support changes

By: - June 13, 2023 12:00 pm
South Building at the University of North Carolina

The historic South Building at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

The UNC Board of Governors would expand and diversify under a draft proposal released Monday by the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina. But with resistance from the General Assembly’s Republican majority, those changes are unlikely to be adopted anytime soon.

Gov. Roy Cooper speaks at a podium
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (Photo: Screengrab from video feed)

“We have built the most amazing public university system in the country,” Gov. Roy Cooper said at a Monday press conference on the commission’s recommendations. “Yet it is obvious that erosion is occurring because of the makeup of the UNC Board of Governors and boards of trustees, that have become more political and have begun exercising more direct control in the administration of our campuses.”

The commission’s recommendations would make several  changes to the governing board of the 17 campus UNC System and individual boards of trustees:

  • Expanding the UNC Board of Governors from 24 to 36 members –32 of them appointed and four of them standing members
  • Expanding each campus board of trustees to 15 members
  • Allowing the minority party of the General Assembly to appoint eight seats on the UNC Board of Governors
  • Reserving four seats on the board of governors and campus boards of trustees for the chairs of the faculty and staff assemblies
  • Mandating that 16 of the board of governors’ members be appointed from eight designated parts of the state to promote geographic diversity on the board; the other 16 would be appointed at-large
  • Instituting a one year “cooling off” period between serving in the General Assembly or being an active lobbyist and serving on the board of governors or a board of trustees
  • Creating a new “Center for Higher Education” which would monitor the UNC Board of Governors and maintain a database of well-qualified candidates for appointment to the boards.

Many of the proposed changes are likely non-starters with the GOP majority in the legislature, which now tightly controls the process of nominating and electing political appointees to the board.

Democratic lawmakers have complained for years that nominees they put forward are never even given a vote when the state House and Senate vote on appointments. They’ve also complained about a lack of racial, gender and political diversity on the board, which went years without a single registered Democrat after GOP lawmakers won a majority and took control of the process.  With its latest appointments, the board has just two registered Democrats, both with close ties to Republican leadership.

Under a bill filed last month by GOP lawmakers, the leaders of the majority party in the legislature — now Republicans — would simply make appointments to the board of governors without the formality of a vote in either chamber.

Addressing a lack of diversity

The board’s lack of racial, gender and political diversity has been broadly criticized by students, faculty, staff and alumni. Last year the American Association of University Professors released a scathing report on the system and took a rare vote to condemn the UNC Board of Governors and UNC System office for “multiple violations of widely accepted standards of shared governance and academic freedom and for a sustained climate of institutional racism.”

Late last year, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order creating the commission that authored yesterday’s draft proposal and tapped two prominent former presidents of the UNC System – Democrat Tom Ross and Republican Margaret Spellings – to lead the effort.

“Higher Ed governance obviously is an emerging issue around the country,” Spellings said at the commission’s Monday meeting. “And we’re in a position to lead.”

Former UNC System Presidents Margaret Spellings and Tom Ross served as co-chairs of the governor’s commission. Photos:

The full commission includes current and former state lawmakers from both parties as well as current and former members of the UNC Board of Governors and various trustee boards from both sides of the aisle. The commission held a series of listening sessions across the state earlier this year.

What the members heard — from students, parents, faculty staff and alumni — was widespread concern that the system’s board of governors reflects the GOP majority more than the state or the university system. The board is significantly more heavily white, male and Republican than either the state or the student body. It also includes too many members who are active lobbyists, former lawmakers who recently left the legislature, and/or attorneys and businesspeople with connections to its leadership.

A new center which maintains a database of potential well-qualified appointees could help diversify the board by distancing it from lawmakers’ personal circles, said State Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford), a member of the commission and former member of the board of governors.

“Right now, when folks get ready to appoint members to the board of governors, they look at their roster of friends,” Robinson said. “And they say, ‘Okay, so-and-so who is my friend in business, so-and-so who supported me here, etc., let’s appoint them.”

Sen. Gladys Robinson (Photo by Joe Killian)

That tends to lead to appointments that look a lot like the lawmakers themselves, she said.

After Republicans took the majority in both the state House and Senate in 2011, they purged the board of any registered Democrats for several years. That changed — at least formally — in 2021, when lawmakers appointed former State Sen. Joel Ford. Ford, who is Black and a Democrat, lost in his primary after siding with Republicans on a number of controversial issues and publicly considering joining the Republican party.

Last month, the House tapped another Democrat — Gene Davis, a Raleigh attorney already serving on the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. Davis, however, has close business ties to House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland). The two share legal clients and Moore even uses Davis’s law offices when he’s in Raleigh during the legislative session.

With its most recently elected members, five of the board’s 24 members will be women — down from six currently. Pearl Burris-Floyd was reelected to another term on the board, but all the new nominees this cycle were men.

According to the most recent enrollment data, 59% of students across the UNC system are female. With its slate of new members, women will represent just 21% of the board.

There are now four Black members and, with the recent addition of Cary businessman Swadesh Chatterjee, one Asian American. Chaterjee was the only new candidate from either chamber who was not a white man. As of the fall of 2022, nearly 35% of students enrolled across the system belong to an ethnic or racial minority group.

“So when you look at whether these appointments really represent the state or the students going to the universities, they really don’t,” Robinson said.

Republican legislative leaders and their appointees have dismissed the commission since it was announced. They continued to do so this week.

“I saw a couple of things that could work,” said Marty Kotis, an appointee to the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and former member of the UNC Board of Governors. “The creation of a center could be good, if it was done right. But a lot of it just looks like an attempt to get more appointments for Democrats. That’s kind of what we thought we’d see.”

Since any changes to the process would have to come through the legislature, adoption of many of the commission’s recommendations seems unlikely. But members said they hope a public conversation about them will be helpful and could inspire similar efforts in other states.

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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.