Both leaders stepped down in the last few months after years of conflict with the UNC Board of Governors. Both struggled with the board over everything from the future of the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument to how much authority the school’s administration should wield and how much direction they should take from the board.
Years of political controversies and personality conflicts with and among the UNC Board of Governors have led to national headlines, mass protests and a burgeoning identity crisis for the 17-campus UNC system.
Worse, national experts and long-time faculty members say, the politically volatile atmosphere threatens to drive away top candidates for leadership positions at the school, highly regarded academics and the sort of students that have made UNC a world-class university.
“UNC is one of the crown jewels of public education,” said Barmak Nassirian , Director of Federal Relations and Policy Analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “It is an amazing institution with so much to be proud of. Under normal circumstances, until fairly recently, to become chancellor or president of the system would be one of the most coveted positions.”
But after years of public squabbles between the school’s leaders and its increasingly conservative and combative board of governors, Nassirian said that view is beginning to change.
“There are seemingly irreconcilable differences between the folks charged with governing the operation and the campus communities and the poor souls charged with running the operation,” Nassirian said. “That makes it a very dangerous mission for anybody to step in. Who would want to leave a workable arrangement to attempt to play Solomon? How do you bridge that gap? It strains credulity to imagine who would want to step into this except for a partisan for one side.”
That’s precisely what long-time faculty members worry about as the board of governors begins a search for the next leaders of both the UNC System and its flagship campus at Chapel Hill. Board members authorized interim UNC System President William Roper to appoint an interim chancellor for the school.
The Board of Governors holds its first full meeting since Folt’s resignation Friday. There is disagreement on the board as to what sort of leader they should pursue and how that search should be handled.
Harry Watson, a prominent historian who has taught at UNC-Chapel Hill for 42 years, said faculty members have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the bald-faced politicization of the board. The change has been obvious since former UNC President Tom Ross was ousted in 2015  without a clear reason beyond politics, Watson said.
Appointed by a new Republican majority that took the General Assembly in 2010, the board asserted its partisan agenda through the closing of academic centers , quarrels with faculty, chancellors and boards of trustees. Even Spellings, a prominent Republican and former U.S. Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, got a short honeymoon. Almost immediately after her election in October of 2015, she began clashing with board members who she said seemed determined to give her orders, usurp her authority and publicly chastise her.
“This is the most politicized I’ve ever seen it,” Watson said of the board. “I think the current majority in the General Assembly has pushed the entire state toward a politically polarized position. Certainly when the Board of Governors fired our previous system president Tom Ross — basically for being a Democrat — that was a clear sign that politics had assumed a poisonous role in the life of the University and things have deteriorated.”
Input from faculty, staff and student groups seems almost completely disregarded by the board now, Watson said. That is unfortunate and dangerous, he said.
“It’s not that students, faculty and staff should dictate to the rest of the state everything that happens at the universities,” Watson said. “The board and their staff obviously have a crucial leadership role. But without the brains and the creativity, the energy and the love of the students, staff and faculty you don’t have a university. What you have is a dead husk.”
“The University of North Carolina could never have the national reputation it has if it were not for the fact that there is a faculty, student body and staff who love the place, are committed to it and want to commit their lives and their futures to a great institution and improving a great institution,” Watson added. “If you kill off their sense of participation in that institution, you kill off the whole thing.”
Nassirian agreed. In nearly 30 years of working in public education policy, he said he has observed that the more political a university system becomes, the more alienating it is to those who make it valuable.
“Public universities are funded by the public,” Nassirian said. “It’s right that elected officials should have significant say over the financial piece of things, for instance. But to be a university requires you to pursue the truth, be objective, not become an opportunistic creature of the times.”
“In treating the University as though it’s no different than the DMV — ‘I won an election, I can do what I want with it’ — you can kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” Nassirian said.
William Sturkey is an assistant professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill who has been on the front lines of the controversy over the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue.
Like Watson, he criticized Folt for waiting so long to clearly articulate her feeling that the statue no longer belonged on the campus. She ordered the removal of its base only after the statue was toppled, on the day she announced her resignation.
But the board of governors’ reaction — denouncing Folt on her way out and forcing her to leave at the end of this month rather than the end of the semester — was illogical, Sturkey said.
“It’s clearly a punitive measure toward one person that hurts the entire campus,” Sturkey said. “It’s a real shame and a real disservice to the students. To decide that she can’t finish out the semester makes you wonder if they have any idea what she really does as chancellor. She isn’t sitting in her office all day thinking about Confederate statues. There is no way that someone can, in two weeks, be prepared to take over everything she does.”
The lack of transparency that already surrounds the searches for Spellings’ and Folt’s replacements does not bode well for finding qualified leaders who can help to heal the system, Sturkey said.
“As irrational as some of the board’s actions have been, it seems obvious that they really don’t care about all aspects of running a campus,” Sturkey said. “Just the politically visible ones. We don’t hear anything from them when the campus doesn’t have water for two days. But they will spend an incredible amount of money and time on something like protecting a Confederate statue.”
The board has made it repeatedly clear their first priority is politics, Sturkey said, so there is little evidence that will not govern their search for the school’s new leaders.
“That’s why they were appointed to the board of governors in the first place,” Sturkey said. “But it would be much better for the university if they cared for service more than power.”
A timeline of conflicts
January 16, 2015: UNC System President Tom Ross is forced out by the UNC Board of Governors. No reason is given, though board members insist it was not due to his performance. The swiftness and lack of transparency – condemned by members of the board itself – led to speculation the new, more conservative members of the board wanted to remove Ross, a prominent Democrat, in favor of someone more in line with their own politics.
October 23, 2015: The UNC Board of Governors elects Margaret Spellings President of the UNC System. Spellings, a prominent Republican who served as Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, was a controversial choice. The secretive hiring process also led faculty members to say they felt shut out. Her hiring led to student walk-outs on multiple UNC campuses on her first day as President.
August 22, 2017: Spellings emails the board a letter sent to Gov. Roy Cooper outlining concerns the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue could pose a threat to students and could, in the charged environment, be in danger of being damaged or destroyed. The letter urged Cooper to convene the N.C. Historical Commission to “take up this matter and to consider what steps should be taken, consistent with the law.” The letter was signed by Spellings, Folt, then Chairman Louis Bissette and UNC Board of Trustees Chairman Haywood Cochrane. It touched off a political firestorm and a letter signed by 15 board members criticizing Spellings for going to Cooper, a Democrat, as weakness and hand-wringing. Ultimately, the board rejects Cooper’s suggestion that danger to the campus and statue justifies its removal, despite a 2015 law passed to prevent the removal of such monuments .
January 3, 2018: Then-UNC Board of Governors Chairman Louis Bissette writes a column for Higher Ed Works  in which he criticizes the board’s partisanship and rancor and encourages them to turn away from politics and micromanaging administrators and boards of trustees throughout the system. Bissette is publicly lambasted for the column, including angry comments in open session at a full board meeting.
May 24, 2018: Harry Smith is elected chairman of the UNC Board of Governors. Smith is one of the board members who signed the letter critical of Spellings and part of a moe combative and conservative wing of the board that has had a number of public conflicts with her and Folt.
July 16, 2018: The final candidate for chancellor at Western Carolina University abruptly removes themselves from consideration. It is revealed Tom Fetzer, one of the board’s more combative and conservative members, leaked confidential information on the candidate to a private firm . Fetzer, who said he had been approached by Western Carolina trustees to become interim chancellor, was told by Spellings someone else had already been chosen. Fetzer presented information on the final candidate found by the private firm that he said suggested the candidate provided inaccurate information when applying for the position. That’s an assertion other board members privy to confidential information on the candidate dispute. Fetzer was criticized for overstepping his role in leaking the confidential information. Spellings, who had chosen the final candidate, considered it an affront to her authority and likely to dissuade good candidates from applying in the future, as they cannot be sure their application information is confidential.
August 21, 2018: Protesters topple the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument. Board of Governors members criticize Folt and Spellings’ handling of the protests leading up to its toppling and the response to the event.
October 26, 2018: UNC System President Margaret Spellings resigns after a tenure marked with the tensions with the UNC Board of Governors. She does not deny there have been tensions but insists it is simply time for her to move on.
November 1, 2018: UNC Board of Governors announces Dr. William Roper, CEO of UNC Healthcare, as interim President of the UNC System.
December 3, 2018: UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt and the UNC Board of Trustees suggests housing the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue in a new, $5.3 million UNC history center that would also feature other items from UNC’s history and include classroom space. The center would be at the edge of the developed campus with far more security than its original site at McCorkle Place.
December 14, 2018: The Board of Governors rejects the history center plan and appoints a task force of board members to work with Folt and the UNC Board of Trustees on a new plan for the statue by mid-March.
January 14, 2019: UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt announces her resignation. In the announcement, which took the UNC Board of Governors by surprise, she also announced that she had ordered the base of the toppled Confederate statue removed from McCorkle Place. Members of the Board of Governors – including Chairman Harry Smith – condemn the order and criticize Folt not speaking with the board about stepping down.
January 15, 2019: The UNC Board of Governors accepts Folt’s resignation, but announces they will not allow her to serve until the end of the semester as she intended. Instead, they announce her last day will be January 31. The board authorizes interim UNC System President William Roper to appoint an interim chancellor as soon as he sees fit.