The Pulse

Harry Smith to resign as chairman of UNC System Board of Governors

By: - September 24, 2019 3:24 pm
UNC Board of Governors Chair Harry Smith

Harry Smith will resign as chairman of the UNC System Board of Governors at the end of this month.

Smith confirmed his resignation in an interview with Policy Watch Tuesday, saying the position had become too much to balance with his business and personal life.

“I’m really tired,” Smith said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s a tough gig. I’ve put a lot of time, energy and effort into it.”

Smith was appointed to the board of governors, which oversees the 16 school UNC system, in 2013. He was elected chairman in July of last year.

Through public and private conflicts with other board members, former UNC System President Margaret Spellings and former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, Smith gained a reputation on the board for being combative.

Now, he says, he wants to step down from a job that he has found exhaustingly political.

“The politics come at you every day,” Smith said. “The board politics, the system politics, the politics in Raleigh.”

Smith’s tenure as chairman has been tumultuous, from the controversial resignations of chancellors and a UNC system president to allegations he helped push out the chancellor of ECU and the ongoing controversy over the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument.

“The hurricane, ‘Silent Sam’, school shootings — all that stuff works on you,” Smith said. “I’ve got a private life too and businesses to run.”

Smith said in making the decision he thought about how the position weighed on his predecessor, Lou Bissette.

“If you look at Lou Bissette, it just wore him out the last year,” Smith said.

Bissette’s troubles included pressure from a strong conservative wing of the board of which Smith was considered the leader, as reported by Policy Watch through a trove of board e-mails.

Bissette ended up penning a column urging the board away from partisanship and political rancor as the Republican controlled General Assembly continued to appoint a series of former Republican state legislators, former high level GOP officials and lobbyists until the board finally had no Democrats at all.

Though criticized as nakedly political, Smith has not always been predictable during his time as chairman of the board

Smith surprised many by changing his mind on one of the foundational controversies of his tenure — the question of whether a Confederate monument should return to the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill after it was toppled by protesters a year ago.

“My original view and opinion, which I think was probably quick and uneducated, was just to put it back up,” Smith said back in May. “Having taken the time, energy and effort and talking to a lot of people I have tremendous faith and trust in, it’s my view and opinion as one member that that’s not the right path.”

Smith says he will remain on the board, serving until his term ends in 2021. But wanted to resign as chairman in time for his replacement to be in place as a new UNC System President is chosen, he said. His resignation, effective Oct.1, should allow time for a new chairman to come on board before new leadership of the system is chosen, Smith said.

“There’s some intentionality to the timing,” Smith said. “If I resign now they have 30 days before they have to elect a new chair. If I waited until June we would have a new president coming in and having to get to know the new chair. I don’t think that’s fair.”

Smith said he hopes Board Vice Chairman Randy Ramsey will be the next chairman. Ramsey will take over as interim chairman until the next chair is elected.

“I talked with Randy about this about six months ago,” Smith said. “There’s going to be an election and other people may run, but Randy has my support and I think there’s strong board support.”

The UNC System acknowledged the resignation Tuesday afternoon with a press statement touting his achievements.

“Under Smith’s capable leadership, the UNC System has seen record enrollment growth and implemented the NC Promise program at Western Carolina University, Elizabeth City State University, and UNC Pembroke,” the statement said. “Mr. Smith guided the transition and succession of Bill Roper as interim president of the UNC System, and he played a key leadership role in the successful turnaround and renaissance of Elizabeth City State University, including the election of its new chancellor. Mr. Smith also created two new Board of Governors committees dedicated to supporting historically minority-serving institutions, as well as veterans and military-affiliated students.”

Roper, who has had some tensions with Smith himself during his short tenure as interim president, praised him in the statement.

“We are grateful for Harry’s service, strong leadership, and selfless commitment to both the UNC System and the Board of Governors,” Roper said in the statement. “I have valued his support, leadership, and friendship throughout this past year, and look forward to his continuing contributions on the Board of Governors.”

NC Policy Watch is following this story as it develops.

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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.