A look at the members of the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities

By: - February 21, 2023 10:00 am
Former UNC System Presidents Margaret Spellings and Tom Ross co-chair the new commission.


Today in Wilmington the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina will hold the first of six public forums. The stated mission of the listening sessions: “to seek ideas and suggestions on how to enhance and refresh the governance structure of our public universities.”

The commission’s overall mission is to examine the current appointment system for members of the UNC System Board of Governors and boards of trustees at the 16 constituent campuses and make recommendations to the Governor on how it may be reformed. An executive order Cooper signed in November requires a report from the commission no later than June of this year.

Top Republican leaders have already dismissed the need for any changes to the appointment process, which the GOP now tightly controls, and denounced the commission itself as partisan. Since any changes recommended by the governor would need to be enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly and its Republican majority, the commission and its recommendations need to be seen as genuinely bi-partisan. Cooper ‘s tapping of two prominent former presidents of the UNC System – Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings, Democrat and Republican respectively – to lead the effort didn’t prevent GOP criticism. But 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.

In addition to Ross and Spellings, the commission includes:

N.C. Rep.  John Bell (R – Wayne) – Bell, a native of Mount Olive, has served as N.C. House majority leader since 2016 and is now in his fifth term.

Lou  Bissette, Jr. – Bissette is a former mayor of Asheville currently serving on the boards of trustees at both Wake Forest University and UNC-Asheville. He previously served on both the Western Carolina University board of trustees and the UNC Board of Governors, where he was chairman from 2015 to 2018. Though a lifelong Republican, Bissette was vocal during his tenure on the board of governors that he believed the board had become too partisan, particularly pointing out the purging of Democrats from a board he said represented both parties equally when he began his service there.

John Fraley – Fraley, a Republican, served in the North Carolina House of Representatives from 2015-2020.  He is one of several former GOP lawmakers now serving on  the UNC Board of Governors and serves as Board Chair of myFutureNC.

Dr. Nicole Dobbins – Dobbins is an Associate Professor of Special Education in the Department of Educator Preparation at North Carolina A&T State University. She serves as  Vice Chair of the UNC Faculty Assembly and the NC A&T State University Faculty Senate.

Isaiah Green – Green is a former student member of the UNC System Board of Governors and the former Student Body President at UNC Asheville.  During his time in those roles he was vocal about the importance of student voices in governance of the system and individual campuses.

Ann Goodnight – Goodnight is  co-founder and board member of Cary Academy and a trustee of North Carolina State University. She serves as Chair of the Goodnight Educational Foundation and is a board member for myFutureNC and on the the board of directors of the GSK Foundation.

Dr. Clifford Jones, Sr. – Jones is a former member of the Winston-Salem State University Board of Trustees and senior pastor at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte since 1982.

Gary Locklear – Locklear is a retired Superior Court Judge currently working part-time with the Robeson County Attorney’s Office. He is a former member of the UNC Pembroke Board of Trustees.

Sen. Gladys Robinson (D- Guilford)- Robinson is now serving her seventh term in the North Carolina Senate where she is 1st Vice Chair of the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus and a member of the standing Senate Committee on Education/Higher Education. She is a former member of the UNC Board of Governors, where she served for a decade.

Karen A. Popp – Popp is a former chair of the UNC-Charlotte Board of Trustees and the university’s Foundation Board. As a student she was the first female student body president in the UNC System and is a former president of the UNC Law Alumni Association.  Popp was a founding member of the Higher Education Works Foundation. She has served as Associate White House Counsel to President Bill Clinton, as an attorney in the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice and is now a partner at the global law firm Sidley Austin LLP.

Cressie Thigpen, Jr. – Thigpen is a former chair of the North Carolina Central University Board of Trustees and former member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. He has served as a Special Superior Court Judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals and was the first Black president of the North Carolina State Bar in 1999.

John L. Townsend, III – Townsend, a native of Lumberton,  is a former member of the UNC-Chapel Hill board of Trustees and is currently chair of the UNC Investment fund, which manages endowments at UNC-Chapel Hill and other system universities. He is also chair of the current UNC-Chapel Hill Capital Campaign, which will end this year. He spent his professional career at Goldman Sachs, Tiger Management and Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.

Brad Wilson – Wilson served on the UNC Board of Governors for 16 years and chaired the board for four. He is a former CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and has served as an adjunct faculty member at UNC-Chapel Hill, Executive in Residence at Wake Forest University and N.C. A&T State University.

The commission’s first public forum will be held Tuesday at 11 a.m. in Wilmington

More information on that event, including how to view it remotely, 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.