The Pulse

Governor signs executive order establishing commission on UNC System governance

By: - November 1, 2022 12:01 pm

Governor Roy Cooper announced a commission Tuesday to study how the UNC System functions, who governs it and how.

The Governor’s Commission on  the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina, created by executive order, will be headed by former UNC System Presidents Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings, a Democrat and Republican respectively.

“North Carolina’s public universities are our most valuable assets,” Cooper said in a statement Tuesday. “And the key to building a stronger economy with opportunity for everyone and they need serious, diverse leadership committed to working together for the good of our students, faculty, future employers and our state.”

Gov. Roy Cooper

“Seeking unbiased review and recommendations on proposed reform from bipartisan leaders with first-hand experience building our great universities will ensure the UNC System’s continued success,” Cooper said. “And I appreciate President Ross’s and President Spellings’s willingness to lead this commission.”

Ross was ousted from his position in 2015 by a new Republican majority on the UNC System Board of Governors. While the board gave no explanation for removing Ross, they did say it was not related to his performance in the position.

Spellings, a former education secretary in the George W. Bush presidential administration, replaced Ross. But after a series of conflicts with board members and criticism from conservatives that she was too independent, she stepped down from the position halfway through a five year contract.

Every member of the UNC System’s board of governors is a political appointee, chosen by the party in the majority at the North Carolina General Assembly. For many years in North Carolina, that was the Democratic party. There were disagreements, scandals and tensions between the universities, their leaders, Democratic political appointees and the Democratic legislature that appointed them. But prominent Democrats and Republicans served together in roughly equal measure on the board, including current UNC System President Peter Hans, a well connected Republican who served on the board in this period.

Then, in 2010, Republicans won majorities in both the state House and the state Senate for the first time since 1870. Two years later, Republican Pat McCrory won the governor’s mansion as well. 

The Republican legislature and its political appointees made some dramatic changes to the UNC System.

The board eliminated three academic centers:  the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at UNC Chapel Hill; the Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University; and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at NC Central. They barred the UNC Center for Civil Rights from litigating or representing clients, with board members saying flatly they didn’t want the center suing state and local governments for civil rights violations.

Importantly, the legislature’s GOP majority also began purging Democrats from the board. For years thereafter  it would include only registered Republicans and politically unaffiliated members, many with strong ties to conservative groups and causes. It would also include former heads of the North Carolina Republican party, Republican politicians who had just left the state legislature and current, active Republican lobbyists.

After years of criticism over the highly partisan composition of the board, the legislature appointed one Democrat last year. That Democrat is Joel Ford, a former state senator who lost his Democratic primary after a voting with Republicans on a series of controversial issues and saying he was considering joining the GOP.

Of the 24 voting members now on the board, just six are women and four are people of color.

When McCrory lost to Cooper in 2016, the GOP legislature stripped the governor’s office of a number of powers and prerogative before Cooper – a Democrat – could take the office. Among them was the ability to appoint trustees at individual UNC system campuses, putting that power too solely in the hands of the GOP majority in the legislature.

That one-party control of the entire system didn’t sit well even with some Republican appointees on the board of governors itself.

Lou Bissette

In 2020, before leaving active service with the board, former board of governors Chairman Lou Bissette criticized his own board and the legislature for making the board increasingly partisan and not representative of North Carolina.

“When I first started serving, Democrats and Republicans were just about equally represented on the Board of Governors,” Bissette wrote in an essay for Higher Ed Works. “It functioned effectively. But today, the Board has no Democrats. That is simply not representative of our state and of the citizens we serve.”

Appointments to governing boards – and how they are made – will be one of the things the new 15-member commission examines, Cooper said Tuesday.

Bissette, a lifelong Republican, also criticized the relationship between the board of governors and the legislature as too close to allow for independence.

From his essay:

“[A] perfect Board of Governors is one that is independent, or as close to independent as a public body can be. Our universities should be held accountable, but governing boards do not exist to serve as oversight committees for the legislature.

The University System’s Board of Governors owes its fiduciary duty to the System. Its duty of loyalty is to the institution it represents, not the institution that appoints its members, the General Assembly.

Who appoints those members is also important. A perfect board would have its appointment power spread out as much as possible. In the past, the executive branch of our state government had a hand in appointing Board of Trustees members, and most folks agree it was a healthy way to be sure differing views were heard. No single entity should have total control over boards as important as these.

In addition, each member of the Board of Governors must be as independent as possible. They must be able to tell the General Assembly “no” when the University’s interests don’t totally align with the Legislature’s.

That means Board Members’ careers and professional interests shouldn’t be financially reliant on the General Assembly. If you are a lobbyist, or your business relies on state contracts, you’re probably not the best person for the Board of Governors.”

Since Bissette’s criticism – which infuriated some of his fellow board members and GOP legislators – the board and legislature have become more intertwined, exhibiting even less independence. This has led to further criticism from some of the board’s most conservative members and a formal condemnation from the American Association of University Professors earlier this year.

Margaret Spellings stepped down as president of the UNC System about halfway through her five year contract, after a series of conflicts with the UNC System Board of Governors.

“Our government and our institutions are strengthened by a periodic review of our structures, our priorities and our commitment,” Spellings said Tuesday. “And I look forward to working with the members of this task force to consider the issues before us and make recommendations to the Governor and other policymakers. I am pleased to be a part of this effort because I strongly believe in the centrality and criticality of our institutions and especially our universities to serve all people as engines of prosperity and the public good.”

The 15-member commission, appointed by the governor, doesn’t have the power to make any changes to the UNC system or its governance. Neither does Cooper’s office. But Cooper said the commission, whose other members will be named in the next few weeks, will provide recommendations to the legislature within the next eight months.

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) wasted no time dismissing the commission and its recommendation, issuing a statement Tuesday saying the legislature has no interest in making changes to the UNC System “regardless of whatever report this politically-motivated commission produces.”

Moore has been personally implicated in a series of incidents involving political pressure in the UNC System and at its campuses, most recently allegations he pushed UNC-Wilmington trustees to name an old friend chancellor there.

Whether or not the legislature considers its recommendations, Ross said he believes the commission is an important step.

“The University of North Carolina System is an unparalleled asset for our state,” Ross said in a statement Tuesday. “And a comprehensive review to ensure that our governance structure is designed to enhance these institutions and meet the rapidly changing demands of the future is the right thing to do.”

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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.