UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees Chair David Boliek. (Image: UNC-Chapel Hill)
Dave Boliek, the outgoing chairman of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees has his eye on a new challenge: a possible run for the Republican nomination for state auditor.
“I haven’t decided yet, but I’m 99 percent of the way there,” Boliek, a longtime Democrat until three months ago, told Newsline Thursday.
The move may seem unusual to some, Boliek acknowledged. Political appointees on the UNC System Board of Governors and the campus-level boards of trustees at its 16 universities are often former state lawmakers, political operatives and lobbyists. But those boards haven’t traditionally served as stepping stones to public office — particularly for those, like Boliek, who have never run for office before.
“Well, nobody’s ever accused me of being conventional,” Boliek said.
A lifetime Democrat, Boliek helped former Democratic state Auditor Ralph Campbell get elected in the early ’90s and worked for longtime former Democratic Insurance Commissioner Jim Long. That changed in June when Boliek, who has frequently sided with conservatives on controversial issues during his tenure on the board of trustees, officially changed his registration to Republican.
“I don’t think my story as a North Carolina Democrat is that abnormal,” Boliek said. “I have migrated to the Republican Party because I feel like the Democratic Party in North Carolina has left me behind.”
A fiscal conservative who considers himself culturally traditional and strongly Christian, Boliek said he increasingly felt more affinity with Republicans than Democrats for at least a decade.
“I don’t believe that one political party or one particular individual has a monopoly on good ideas,” Boliek said. “I do believe, though, that in North Carolina right now I certainly align more consistently in individual beliefs and political beliefs and fiscal policy with the Republican Party. I don’t align with the platform of the Democratic Party in a fiscal sense, a moral sense and an ideals sense.”
That’s been apparent to observers of his tenure on the board of trustees for some time.
“It muddies the waters even more”
“It makes sense,” said Mimi Chapman, who served as chair of the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill for much of Boliek’s term as chair, of the party switch. “[Republican] seems to be more what he is.”
What doesn’t make sense, Chapman said, is having political appointees run for office from positions like the board of trustees. Chapman is also one of the founders of the nonprofit Coalition for Carolina, a group that opposes the ongoing politicization of university governance. A political run like the one Boliek is contemplating is a perfect example of the group’s concerns, she said.
“If someone is actively seeking the nomination of a political party and they are a member of our board of trustees, this is yet another step in politics infecting the decision making of the board of trustees,” Chapman said. “Almost by definition they are trying to please, I guess in particular, primary voters. They’re being asked to please the most fervent, extreme parts of their party. In the case of chair Boliek, his only place to demonstrate his bona fides would be his actions on the board of trustees.”
With that in mind, Chapman said, his record on the board takes on new significance and looks a lot like a period of preparation for a Republican primary.
Boliek was at the center of the controversy over the board’s refusal to vote on tenure for Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. When enormous public pressure led to an up-or-down vote on the tenure question, Boliek was one of just four of the 13 members — along with Haywood Cochrane, Allie Ray McCullen and John Preyer, who succeeded Boliek as chair last week — to vote “no.”
Less than a month later, in July 2021, Boliek was elected chair of the board.
Before the year was out, under Boliek’s leadership, the board elevated Chris Clemens to the office of provost at the university. Clemens, who has described himself as “among the most outspoken conservative members of the Arts & Sciences faculty at UNC for many years” was embroiled in a dispute over the creation of an initiative at Chapel Hill called the “Program in Civic Virtue and Civil Discourse.” Clemens and others described it as a “conservative center” going back to its inception in 2017. Clemens has since denied the program will be explicitly conservative.
The board voted to fast-track that program, and to hire a public relations firm to help it deal with backlash. That led to board members penning editorials for the conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and appearing on various Fox News shows to say the university has “no shortage of left-of-center views” and that the new school would provide a counterbalance. Board members clashed with faculty, staff and alumni who opposed the way in which the new school was created and its purpose.
Boliek said he doesn’t see any of that as symptomatic of a Republican-Democratic divide, but of educational philosophy and a need for ideological balance.
That may be, Chapman said, but how would the public differentiate between decisions and actions motivated by individual principal and those that are motivated by a desire to please Republican primary voters?
Such a run for office from the board of trustees is “another breach of norms that complicated the public’s view of the board of trustees,” Chapman said.
“It calls into question all of his choices,” Chapman said. “What were they in the service of? Were they in the service of this run he’s making? Were they in the service of the university — the students, the staff, the faculty of this university? It muddies the waters even more than they already were.”
“I think everyone believes trustees should have the best interests of the institution at heart,” Chapman said. “And the best interests of the institution may line up with the interests of ‘Political Party A’ at one time and ‘Political Party B’ at another time. But that should not be the goal. The goal is serving the institution itself. It’s not to serve political interests. That’s not the purpose of the university.”
Jay Smith, a History professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and chair of the North Carolina American Association of University Professors, agreed.
“[A Boliek candidacy] in some ways is perfectly consistent with what we’ve seen with these boards in the last few years,” Smith said. “They’re certainly not bashful about pushing a political agenda in their management of university affairs. It’s sobering to see just how upfront they are about pushing partisan agendas.”
“On the one hand it doesn’t surprise me all that much, because they’re political animals,” Smith said. “But it further erodes — or threatens to further erode — any confidence that the public had that these boards are independent stewards of the institutions they’re supposed to be watching over. If there’s a revolving door between political office and seats on the board, that just can’t be a good thing.”
A crowded field
In a run for the GOP nomination for auditor, Boliek enters a potentially crowded field. Filing doesn’t open until December, but already, a number of Republicans have declared their intention to challenge current Auditor Beth Wood, a Democrat whose re-election campaign may be hampered by a March conviction for misdemeanor hit-and-run.
Some of the GOP hopefuls, like former Greensboro City Council member Jim Kee and Guilford County Commissioner James Upchurch, have experience running for and holding office. Whether an interesting political coincidence or political trend, both Kee and Upchurch were also Democrats who later became Republicans.
A registered Democrat during his tenure on the nonpartisan Greensboro City Council from 2009 to 2013, Kee mounted an unsuccessful run for a seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives in 2014 as a Democrat. He switched his registration to Republican in 2017 during an unsuccessful attempt to be reelected to the city council.
Upchurch was elected to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners in 2020, where he was part of a solid Democrat majority. He changed his party affiliation to Republican a year later, sparking criticism from constituents who said his district wouldn’t have elected him as a Republican. Recently, in a move likely to resonate with many Republican primary voters, he pushed to have “In God We Trust” added to 10 county buildings at a cost of $40,000. Finding little support for the costly project, Upchurch offered to pay for it personally. The board defeated his proposal 6-2.
Others GOP auditor hopefuls, like businessman Charles Dingee and A.J. Daoud, have deeper ties to the Republican party, having held positions within the party itself at the local or state levels.
Though he is new to elected politics, Boliek believes his time on the board of trustees, particularly his stint as chairman, can be “a good segue into statewide leadership.”
“I had several people asked me if I’ve ever ever considered statewide office over the last probably six months,” Boliek said. “And that sort of that sort of started me thinking about it. And I feel like the experience in leadership at Chapel Hill is something that I could take to the auditor’s office in terms of accountability and oversight.”
Fellow UNC-Chapel Hill Trustee Marty Kotis has experience as both a trustee and a member of the UNC System Board of Governors. He’s never wanted to run for office himself, he said, but he says he can see how the skills learned on such boards would be transferable to public office.
“Does it prepare you for running for office?” Kotis asked. “I don’t think I’m qualified to weigh in on that. But do you pick up new skill sets while you’re serving on these boards? Absolutely. You’re dealing with a lot of issues that you’re exposed to that cover an awful lot of different topics. I think it definitely gives you new skills outside of what you may be doing normally, day to day.”
Boliek has shown strong leadership skills in his time as chair, Kotis said, making sure everyone on the board feels their voices are heard and showing a keen eye for detail.
“It’s not an easy job, leading a board with this many people, all with strong opinions, and getting a lot done in two years,” Kotis said. “He’s handled it really well when dealing with some difficult issues.”
As chair of board of trustees, Boliek has navigated some choppy political waters and faced frequent criticism. Though all trustees are appointees of the General Assembly’s Republican majority or its appointees on the board of governors, Boliek said he’s never felt pressure from the General Assembly on the issues before them.
“Heck, there may be a half a dozen opinions on any given issue, particularly at a public institution like UNC-Chapel Hill, which is the first public university in the nation, and the flagship in the state of North Carolina,” Boliek said “So there are passionate beliefs and opinions on multiple sides of issues. So, but if that is your definition of political then yes, it was political. But issues that have arose and Carolina, I haven’t tackled those issues in terms of Republican or Democrat.”
“Obviously, you want to try to work with stakeholders, and at some point, you know, decisions have to be made,” Boliek said. “So I feel like whether 100% of the people agree with any decision that I personally have made, or that the board has made…certainly it’s individuals’ prerogatives to disagree with those decisions. But I think people will tell you generally, that I do make a decision and you know where I stand on issues.”
If he gains the nomination and is elected, Boliek said, he’ll have to step down from the board and wind down his law practice, leaving it to his partners. If he doesn’t, he’ll continue to serve on the board. He doesn’t consider running for office while a board member to be a conflict of interest, he said, but instead a continuation of his desire to serve the state.
“I think it’s an office that can be transformative on behalf of taxpayers and I think that it is an office that is, quite frankly, in need of redefinition,” Boliek said.
Part of that, he said, is working better with the General Assembly — something critics have for years said members of the UNC System’s board of governors and boards of trustees are doing too well to maintain true independence.
“The first thing I would do if I were elected is to engage the auditor team in a strategic plan to determine exactly what our mission is in the state auditor’s office, consistent with statutes and what the General Assembly expects,” Boliek said.
“Obviously, you know, if you’ve got a situation and you’re auditing something and there’s clear ill intent or malfeasance that’s present, you have an obligation to move that forward,” Boliek said. “But I think in large part, most people who work in state agencies or work at institutions that are under are within the jurisdiction of the state auditor are very well meaning and hard working. And as an audit is completed, if there are issues, I think the first step is to try to define best practices and to work with state agencies, institutions that receive state money and agencies that receive state money to make sure that those institutions, agencies, or branches of state government, are using taxpayer money most efficiently.”
Boliek hasn’t yet committed to running, and won’t need to until filing begins in December. Making that decision will be easier now that he’s handed over leadership of the board of trustees, he said.
“It’s a big job,” Boliek said. “It can be hard to think about a lot of other things.”
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.