When the UNC Board of Governors weighed in on the state budget stalemate last month , it didn’t just take a side in a partisan political fight between a Democratic governor and the Republican majority in the legislature. It asked the individual boards of trustees of all 16 UNC universities and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics to follow suit.
This week a half-dozen trustees from those schools told Policy Watch they are uncomfortable wading into the partisan fight, but fear Republican legislative leaders will remove or fail to re-appoint them if they don’t follow orders.
“We’re basically being drafted into this political war,” said a member of North Carolina A&T’s board of trustees who asked not to be identified for fear of political retribution.
“The Board of Governors is not asking us for our opinions,” the board member said. “They are asking us to agree with them on an issue that is split down the middle in Raleigh, Republicans and Democrats. And we all know that if we don’t do it, if we don’t vote the way they want us to, we’re not going to stay on these boards for long.”
The legislature adjourned last month without resolving the months’ long budget stalemate  and withSenate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) saying it’s possible no new state budget will be passed this fiscal year or next.
Since July, Republican legislative leaders have tried and failed to wrangle enough votes to overturn the budget veto by Gov. Roy Cooper, who among other objections, would like to see Medicaid expanded in the state.
At its January meeting the UNC Board of Governors, whose members are appointed by the legislature’s Republican majority, unanimously passed a resolution urging state lawmakers to pass the currently proposed state budget , which would require a veto override. It also gave a directive to the individual boards of trustees at UNC schools across the state.
“Further, we call on all boards of trustees to create and approve a concurring resolution as soon as practical,” the board wrote in its resolution.
Over the last month, eight schools have passed such resolutions – Appalachian State University, Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Pembroke, UNC School of the Arts and Western Carolina University.
The remaining schools – East Carolina University, North Carolina A&T University, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, North Carolina State University, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Asheville, UNC-Greensboro and UNC-Wilmington – are all scheduled to take up the issue at meetings this month.
At Western Carolina University, one of the first schools to pass a resolution, two trustees abstained and one was absent from the conference call vote.
A member of the school’s board of trustees, who asked not to be identified, said board members were even more skeptical of the resolution than that vote reflects.
“I know from talking to other board members that we pretty well understand this is not an optional thing,” the board member said. “If you have questions about this resolution or whether we should even be taking a side in this fight over which budget is best, you had better hold your nose and vote the way the Board of Governors wants you to. If you don’t, they’re going to find somebody who will.”
Another Western Carolina trustee confirmed that atmosphere to Policy Watch this week.
“We have seen on basically every board of trustees in the state, and even on the Board of Governors, that if you don’t play the political game, they are going to get rid of you,” the trustee said. “There are too many examples for anybody to think that’s not going to happen at this point.”
Henry Stoever, President & CEO of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges , said it’s not unusual for university systems to create a united front to advocate for specific issues.
“In the majority of instances within college and university systems, there is a unified advocacy effort around public policy issues and initiatives,” Stoever said.
But generally, individual boards and institutions have a choice about whether to participate in that effort, Stoever said.
“Depending on local circumstances and for various reasons, however, institutional governing boards and their chief executives within a system may choose not to weigh in on an issue or a position taken by the system office,” Stoever said.
A number of trustees told Policy Watch that freedom of choice doesn’t exist in this instance. That’s both because of the explicit wording of the Board of Governors resolution, which calls on them to agree, they said, and because of a political environment that strongly discourages dissent.
Even at UNC-Chapel Hill, where the board of trustees unanimously passed a resolution supporting the budget preferred by Republicans, trustees told Policy Watch the actual sentiment was not unanimous.
“I don’t personally think in a situation like this the board should involve itself,” said a UNC-Chapel Hill trustee who asked not to be identified. “I think the universities and university funding is not the central issue of this budget fight that is going on. The governor is not suggesting cutting funding for the universities and as far as I know the legislature would not pass any budget that did do that.”
Still, the trustee chose to vote with the majority.
“I’m not going to be the one who makes the argument against this on this board of trustees,” the trustee said. “We know who appoints us. And there’s a lot of work we need to get done, a lot of difference we can make by being here, that makes it not worth getting thrown off because we didn’t pass a resolution.”
Another UNC-Chapel Hill trustee said he voted with the majority for self-preservation, but also because in the end he believed the resolution will be meaningless.
“I don’t think any of us really think that if we pass this resolution or don’t pass this resolution, it means Republicans and Democrats are going to work this thing out in Raleigh, or suddenly the votes are going to appear to overturn a veto,” the trustee said. “It has no real weight or meaning. It’s just political posturing.”
Marty Kotis, the UNC Board of Governors member who pushed for the original resolution, said he doesn’t believe that is so.
“I do hope that there will be some Democrats who see this and decide to put their local universities, and the university system, ahead of politics,” Kotis said. “I would hope there are some people who will make that decision.”
Further, Kotis said, if trustees disagree with the tactic, they should say so publicly and make themselves known.
“I think if they feel that way, they ought to speak up and go on the record saying so,” Kotis said. “But I think that’s a bunch of crap.”
The Board of Governors and Board of Trustees regularly advocates for the interests of the schools they represent in Raleigh, Kotis said, and this shouldn’t be any different.
“They certainly don’t have any problem sending down lobbyists to lobby the state,” Kotis said. “They ask for money and they ask for changes to laws in Raleigh.”
Kotis maintains the board of governors and the various boards of trustees aren’t getting into a political fight, but rather simply advocating for a budget that would be incredibly advantageous to the university system.
“This is one of the best budgets we’ve seen, if not the best budget we’ve seen,” Kotis said. “Where there’s a significant issue, to advocate for the university, that’s where we are supposed to come in. It’s not about Rs and Ds – that just happens to be the way it is this time, with this hold up. But if the Republicans were advocating to keep all our schools and the Democrats were voting to get rid of four of them, I don’t think anybody would think it was a political issue that we’d have to stay out of.”
State Sen.Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) doesn’t see it that way.
A former member of the UNC Board of Governors herself and a current member of the Senate’s standing committee on Education/Higher Education, Robinson said the resolutions are a bad move for the universities.
“I served on the Board of Governors for ten years and we never did anything like that,” Robinson said. “The Board of Governors and the boards of trustees do advocate for funding – they’ve advocated for bonds or specific things for their specific institutions. But when it moves to the level of state government in terms of the governor’s veto, the governor’s authority and what we decide to do on the budget in the legislature, they should not be getting involved.”
That’s not just because it’s outside of their authority, Robinson said, but because as political appointees, they have little credibility on partisan issues.
“Right now, Democrats are totally locked out of the process of appointing members to the Board of Governors and the boards of trustees,” Robinson said. “We have suggested names. I have suggested very qualified people. And they’ve never been appointed. You can’t have people who are appointed entirely by Republicans telling Democrats what they should do in Raleigh.”
By weaponizing the Board of Governors and boards of trustees as part of a political struggle, Robinson said, the Republicans in the legislature continue to degrade the UNC system.
“They are tearing down a great system,” Robinson said.
Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake), another member of the Senate Committee on Education/Higher Education, agreed.
If the Board of Governors is going to take a side in the budget fight because they believe it’s in the best interests of the university, Chaudhuri said, they have chosen the wrong one.
“Rather than calling for boards of trustees of UNC schools to advocate to override Governor Cooper’s budget, the UNC Board of Governors should be pushing for Republican leadership to compromise with Senate Democrats,” Chaudhuri said. “The fact remains that Governor Cooper’s budget is a better budget for our universities and professors.”