Controversial conservative cites family duties, but evidence indicates other board members forced his hand
Tom Fetzer, one of the UNC Board of Governors’ most combative and controversial members, abruptly resigned Wednesday morning.
Fetzer announced his decision at the end of the board’s regular meeting, saying the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that he and his wife need to prioritize homeschooling their five children in Wilmington.
“Teaching our children at home has been such a blessing we’ve decided to continue it,” Fetzer said, saying his attention needs to shift from higher education to elementary education.
Fetzer said he informed board chairman Randy Ramsey and State. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger of his decision in the last few weeks. However, Fetzer said he waited to officially resign until the Senate was back in session so they can fill his vacancy quickly.
In his comments to the board, Fetzer acknowledged he has often been at odds with his fellow board members, but said he will miss the “impassioned and sometimes heated exchanges” he had with even longtime friends on the board.
“When your longtime friends disagree with you vehemently it is humbling but also enlightening,” Fetzer said. “Not only did I benefit from those exchanges but I also think that better policy is hammered out through those kinds of debates.”
Fetzer’s announcement comes as the board is finalizing changes to its policies and procedures that would more strictly outline its members’ responsibilities. The policies will include censure and recommendation for removal of board members who overstep their roles. The changes were instigated by repeated problems with Fetzer acting in ways his colleagues said were inappropriate and possibly legally dangerous for the UNC System.
While most of the board was silent on Fetzer’s announcement, two members spoke to Policy Watch about it Wednesday. The members asked not to be identified so that they could characterize closed-session discussions of the board.
“I think the writing was on the wall for him that the board wasn’t going to put up with the kinds of things he was involved in,” one board member said. “We are putting some teeth into our policies and he is not stupid. He’s a very intelligent man. He knows if he continues to operate the way he has, he’s going to end up in trouble.”
Another board member said he believed Fetzer could “read the room” and tell that the majority of the board had no further stomach for scandals from its own board members.
“His personality is just not going to allow him to be on the board without going beyond the lines that most of us observe,” the board member said. “He just has the kind of nature where he’s going to do what he wants to do and he likes to get into it with people, and I think our board is trying to move beyond that. We’ve had too much of it in the last few years.”
A controversial tenure
Fetzer is a former mayor of Raleigh and one-time chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party who now works as a lobbyist. Since joining the board in 2017, he has been at the center of a series of scandals and conflicts on a board rife with in-fighting and accusations of overt partisanship.
Some of his colleagues have publicly and privately called for his censure; several have agitated for the board to recommend his removal by the General Assembly, which appoints board members.
That was just the latest in a series of controversies involving Fetzer and ECU. Fetzer has repeatedly attempted to play an outsize role at the school, leading several of his colleagues and members of the school’s board of trustees to conclude he would like to become ECU chancellor.
Fetzer has denied he is seeking the position. Under rules passed by the UNC Board of Governors, he would have to resign from the board before being considered for any leadership position at a UNC campus.
Last year, after the forced resignation of former ECU chancellor Cecil Staton, Dan Gerlach was named interim chancellor. Fetzer soon outlined an extensive plan he called “Operation Rescue ECU” and sent it to UNC System Interim President Bill Roper, former board chairman Harry Smith and board member Michael Williford. In the letter, Fetzer offered specific strategies for the university’s future. They included detailed fiscal and enrollment plans and a new marketing campaign he wanted to call “ECU Wants You.”
Fetzer went so far as to dictate a draft of the interim chancellor’s first public remarks which included describing Staton’s leadership as “two years of controversy and chaos” which needed to be replaced with “calm and stability.”
Fetzer also recommended waiting until after spring graduation when students left campus, to name a new chancellor to avoid “sympathy for Staton” — who was forced to resign without any publicly disclosed reason in March of last year.
Gerlach became popular and was well-liked among students, faculty and trustees in his time as interim chancellor and announced he would be a candidate for the permanent position.
That, several board members and ECU Board of Trustees members told Policy Watch, is why Fetzer seized on the controversy surrounding Gerlach’s drinking with students and allegations that he drove home intoxicated.
Fetzer became convinced he had to intervene in the official UNC investigation, one ECU trustee said, to ensure damaging information on Gerlach was not only uncovered by the investigation and brought to the board, but also was quickly made public to quell sympathy and support for the man who might have been his rival in the chancellor search.
Fetzer employed Greenville attorney Peter Romary in an effort to secure damaging security camera video of Gerlach which was ultimately leaked to the media.
A report by the law firm hired to investigate the Gerlach affair found Fetzer and Romary did not fully cooperate with the official UNC investigation and instead ran their own rogue investigation which they concealed from the board.
Members of the UNC Board of Governors were so incensed by Fetzer’s actions in the scandal that they mulled sanctions against him.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for any member to operate outside of the board, regardless of whether it’s the chair of the board or whomever,” Ramsey told Policy Watch at the time.
“I believe we all have governance policies in place and we should follow those governance policies,” Ramsey said, adding there should be consequences for violating them. “We’re going to have serious discussions on that matter,”
Though heated discussions on the matter were held in closed session the board ultimately took no action against Fetzer.
As Policy Watch has reported, the ECU affair was not the first time Fetzer operated outside the system to impact a chancellor search.
In 2018, Fetzer and Romary were also involved in the scuttled search for a new chancellor at Western Carolina University. Fetzer gave confidential candidate information to Romary, who suggested the final candidate had lied on their application. Other board members said that wasn’t true. The candidate ultimately withdrew their application amid concerns about confidentiality.
Fetzer’s fellow board members — and then-UNC President Margaret Spellings — criticized Fetzer for stepping outside of the board’s process and compromising the confidentiality of the selection process.
Fetzer later admitted he had spoken to Spellings about becoming interim chancellor at Western Carolina but was denied when she said she’d chosen someone else.
On Wednesday Ramsey, often at odds with Fetzer, had nothing but warm words for the exiting board member.
He said he will miss Fetzer on the board and said he would not characterize his “spirited” participation on the board as the sort of in-fighting Ramsey has decried on the board.
Asked whether Fetzer resigned for other reasons than to spend more time with family, Ramsey declined to address the matter.
“I really don’t have anything else to say about it,” Ramsey told reporters after the meeting.