The Pulse

“An inherent conflict of interests”: Governors’ commission members talk lobbyists, diversity in UNC System governance

By: - March 2, 2023 10:00 am

This week members of the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina continued their series of listening sessions, meeting to hear from the public in Asheville.

At their Tuesday meeting, the second of six planned sessions, members took on questions of diversity on the board and the thorny issue of whether lobbyists should serve on the board.

Lou Bissette, a member of the commission who spent 12 years on the UNC Board of Governors and currently serves on the UNC-Asheville Board of Trustees, said independence is crucial at both the trustee and UNC System governance level. For that reason, he said, he believes there should be more scrutiny over who can serve.

Louis Bissette Jr.

“There are people who don’t like my saying this, but I don’t think we ought to have lobbyists on the board of governors,” Bissette said. “Because although they’re great people, they have an inherent conflict of interests. And right now we do have a number of lobbyists on our board of governors. I think that’s something this commission should look at.”

At issue is a longstanding question: Should lobbyists, whose livelihoods depend on currying favor with members of the North Carolina General Assembly, serve on a board which has long struggled – and often failed –  to maintain its independence in fraught political circumstances?

In 2021 lawmakers – with support of some board members themselves – filed a bill that would have barred lobbyists from the board.

“It’s critical that we establish an independent Board of Governors separate and apart from the General Assembly so the university can carry out its mission of world class teaching, research and service,” Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake), one of the bill’s sponsors, told Policy Watch at the time.“I think for the sake of the UNC system and for our citizens, the General Assembly must do everything it can to remove partisan politics from the appointment process,” Chaudhuri said. “I believe one of those steps would be barring lobbyists from serving on the UNC Board of Governors. I remain concerned that the UNC Board of Governors has become a revolving door of lobbyists and retired legislators. I think at the end of the day, those types of appointments will result in undue political interference from the legislature.”

Though that bill was dead on arrival with the General Assembly’s Republican majority, the issue persists today.

Three lobbyists then serving on the board — Thom Goolsby, Reggie Holley and David Powers  — are still members today.

Holley’s 2019 nomination to the board was controversial as the issue of more lobbyists on the board had already been hotly debated by then, with lawmakers, members of the public and even some members of the board itself calling for at least a “cooling off” period between service in the General Assembly or lobbying there and service on the board. Holley, who has ties through his lobbying to the General Assembly’s Republican majority, didn’t attend the committee meeting where lawmakers could have asked him direct questions about the issue. He was elected shortly thereafter.

A former lobbyist, Darrell Allison, controversially left the board to become chancellor at Fayetteville State University. Allison’s path, from lobbyist to the UNC Board of Governors to chancellor chosen by that very board — even though he lacked direct experience working in higher education beyond his political appointments — was seen by many as the sort of political self-dealing that needs to be addressed.

Before his sudden resignation from the board in 2020, lobbyist Tom Fetzer was embroiled in a series of politically charged controversies and conflicts with fellow board members and system staff. A former head of the state GOP and one time mayor Raleigh, Fetzer was a frequent example cited by board members who believed political lobbyists, former lawmakers and political functionaries had too much sway on the board.

Lobbyist Tom Fetzer, a former member of the UNC Board of Governors.

The issue is, to some degree, a partisan one – though there are Republicans lawmakers and appointees sympathetic to idea that the relationship between the board of governors and the General Assembly is already too close without more former legislators or lobbyists being appointed. Bissette himself is a lifelong Republican who was twice mayor of Asheville. Still, he has said, he noticed a pronounced shift toward partisanship during his time serving on the UNC System’s governing board.

During Bissette’s tenure the Republican majority who tightly controls the appointment process largely purged the board of Democrats. Former GOP legislators, party leaders and conservative lobbyists were all appointed while the legislature largely ignored criticisms that the board, dominated by conservative white men, is not representative of either the state or the university system.

As far back as 2006,  a report from the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research warned the process of electing members of the board had become “increasingly partisan.” A new Republican majority in the legislature abandoned a policy of granting at least four seats on the board to the minority party, which the report warned would “increasingly result in higher education policy issues being turned into partisan disputes.”

Since that report was published, the problem has only gotten worse. Before former State Senator Joel Ford was appointed to the board of governors in 2021, the board had gone years without a single Democratic member. Democratic lawmakers regularly complain that their suggested candidates are not even considered. Ford, who often butted heads with his fellow Democrats and often voted with Republicans during his time as a lawmaker, publicly toyed with the idea of joining the Republican party before he lost his seat in a Democratic primary. That background made him an attractive Democrat for appointment to the board.

Members of the bi-partisan governors’ commission will hold two more listening sessions this month – on March 13 in Charlotte and March 30 in Greenville. They are charged with delivering their report on potential changes to the governance of the university system to Governor Roy Cooper’s office no later than June.

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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.