Rumors of N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore’s interest in becoming the next president of the UNC System went from whispers in the General Assembly halls to speeches on the House floor Wednesday.
As the House debated the appointment of a new member of the UNC Board of Governors Wednesday, House Minority Leader Darren Jackson (D-Wake) said he wanted to shine a light on potential conflicts of interest.
Reginald “Reggie” Holley, the Republican lobbyist whose nomination was ultimately approved by the House, was asked by Moore to put his name forward and serve on the board, Jackson said — a fact Jackson said he learned from a conversation with Holley.
“How does a lobbyist — someone who depends on leadership for the movement of bills and policy — how do they say no when the Speaker of the House calls them and asks them to serve?” Jackson said.
And how does the speaker, who has been rumored for months to be interested in the presidency of the 17-campus UNC system, not recuse himself from choosing the members of the Board of Governors who will ultimately make that decision? Jackson continued.
“Even former Board of Governors Chair Harry Smith says the speaker is interested in the job,” Jackson said, referencing a recent Triangle Business Journal article in which Smith said he had “every reason to believe” Moore wanted the job.
In that same article, Moore denied the rumors he is seeking the position.
“My plans are – very simply – to run for re-election here,” Moore told the Journal. “I’ve got a lot of work to do here. Speaker of the House is a pretty demanding job – I’m happy doing what I’m doing.”
Jackson said those denials — and others Moore has made in the last few months — are not definitive enough.
“The Speaker is a very smart attorney,” Jackson said, and knows how to craft a denial that doesn’t rule out the possibility of him ultimately taking the position.
Jackson said he would like to see a “Shermanist” statement like the one made by Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman when asked if he would run for U.S. president in 1884.
“I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected,” Sherman said.
Moore dismissed the rumors on the floor Wednesday as he admonished Jackson to stay on the topic of Holley’s nomination during the House debate.
“The gentleman should probably avoid wild rumors and actually talk about the bill that’s before the body,” Moore said.
But after Wednesday’s session, when asked by Policy Watch, Moore dodged questions about the job.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” Moore said as he walked from the House chamber to his office. “But thank you for asking.”
In the last week, lawmakers and Board of Governors members who were, for months, reluctant to go on record about the prospect of Moore as UNC President have begun to come forward.
On Wednesday, board member David Powers, also a well-connected Republican lobbyist, said Moore would make a good candidate.
“I don’t think there’s one skill set that is perfectly suited to being president of a university system,” Powers said. “There are many different skills, some of which the speaker has in spades. I don’t think there’s a type, if you will.”
Powers said he is not overly concerned about the optics, given that, if Moore were chosen, he would be selected by board members Moore had a role in choosing at the state legislature.
“Of course everybody pays attention to that,” Powers said. “But at the same time, we want the best person we can possibly get. If you look across our system, we have great chancellors who are academics. But we have a heart surgeon at UNC-Pembroke, one of the best in the system. A magazine editor, Lindsay Bierman, just left as chancellor of UNC School of the Arts. We’ve got people from all walks of life.”
“There are some very good examples of politicians being very successful university presidents,” Powers added. “Look at Mitch Daniels at Purdue.”
Daniels is the former Republican governor of Indiana who was elected by Purdue University’s board of trustees in 2012. As governor, Daniels appointed or reappointed every member of the board that ultimately hired him.
Critics protested the choice, calling it an obvious conflict of interest. The resulting state investigation found that his election did not violate the Indiana Code of Ethics.
Rep. Kelly Hastings (R-Gaston), co-chair of the House standing committee on universities, also said he’d support Moore’s candidacy for president of the UNC system.
“I think he’d be very capable,” Hastings said in an interview with Policy Watch this week. “As I’ve said, he has experience with the public education system, and he has experience with the intricacies of the public education system and their relation to the General Assembly. So objectively, those would be positive assets, in my opinion.”
Moore hasn’t yet said he’s interested in the position, Hastings said, but would make a formidable candidate if he did.
“Varied experiences are important,” Hastings said. “I don’t think there’s any template. He does have public education experience as a graduate of the university system and a former member of the Board of Governors. I think he would definitely have what it takes to do that job.”
But not everyone feels a Moore presidency would be a positive for the university system.
Bob Phillips is executive director of the non-partisan government watchdog group Common Cause NC. He said Moore’s position as one of the most powerful Republicans in the state makes it difficult for the public to be sure a fair selection process would be carried out.
“It certainly invites skepticism that you are getting what you want — a very open, a very fair process that is nothing short of integrity to the highest level,” Phillips said. “It’s just the reality of the power of in this case someone serving in the top spot in one of the chambers. It’s certainly a concern. How does the board his chamber selected make a decision that is going to have public confidence? That’s difficult with a board that has so many connections to the leadership and the legislature.”
The 24-member UNC Board of Governors currently has no Democratic members. There are five members who are politically unaffiliated. The balance of the board is Republican. Five of its members are former GOP legislators. With the election of Holley, six of its members are current or former lobbyists.
“I think all of that is definitely a problem,” Phillips said. “Other boards have rules about lobbyists serving on them. It would seem to me that when you have lobbyists who have business relationships with the legislature, you would want to prevent those conflicts.”
The larger problem, Phillips said, is the board does not reflect the state in terms of gender, race or political affiliation.
“The UNC system is, as it’s often cited, the crown jewel of our state,” Phillips said. “We have to be mindful moving forward that the board and the leadership and how they got there — that that’s beyond reproach and potential conflict. The process has to have integrity and good faith.”