Two new bills, if they become law, would change the face of the UNC Board of Governors. One would bar members of the General Assembly and lobbyists from serving on the board. The other measure would directly appoint state lawmakers themselves to the board as non-voting members.
At issue: the composition of the 24-member board that sets direction and policy for the 16 campuses that compose the University of North Carolina system.
Members are appointed by the General Assembly, whose Republican majority has in recent years largely purged the board of Democrats. Former GOP legislators, party leaders and conservative lobbyists have all been appointed while the legislature has largely ignored criticisms that the board, dominated by conservative white men, is not representative of either the state or the university system.
“At this point, everyone knows that it’s partisan and it’s political and it shouldn’t be that way,” said Lamar Richards, student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill. “It’s bad for the system, it’s bad for the universities and it’s bad for the faculty and students. And it’s been that way a long time.”
Fifteen years ago, a report from the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research warned the process of electing members of the board had become “increasingly partisan.” A new Republican majority in the legislature abandoned a policy of granting at least four seats on the board to the minority party, which the report warned would “increasingly result in higher education policy issues being turned into partisan disputes.”
Since that 2006 report, the problem has worsened. Before former State Senator Joel Ford was appointed last month, the board had gone years without a single Democratic member. Democratic lawmakers regularly complain that their suggested candidates are not even considered.
The appointment of highly partisan members has helped lead to conflicts with student and faculty groups, the resignation of chancellors and a university president, board chairs themselves decrying partisanship on the board, and interference from the General Assembly. From the controversy over the Silent Sam Confederate monument at UNC-Chapel Hill to conflicts over COVID-19 reopening plans, controversial stances taken by the board and viewed as partisan by critics have become the norm.
Barring lawmakers and lobbyists?
Senate Bill 546 seeks to keep members of the General Assembly, lobbyists, and the spouses of either from serving on the board. It would also bar officers or employees of the university system or any of its institutions from serving. The bill’s sponsors say that’s necessary to minimize conflicts of interest and make the board more independent and responsive to the students, faculty and staff at the schools and less beholden to partisan concerns.
Its sponsors say board members shouldn’t have to decide between doing what they think is right for the university system, its schools and students and obeying the will of the legislature, on which those who are lobbyists might be reliant for their livelihoods.
“It’s critical that we establish an independent Board of Governors separate and apart from the General Assembly so the university can carry out its mission of world class teaching, research and service,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake), one of the bill’s sponsors.
“I think for the sake of the UNC system and for our citizens, the General Assembly must do everything it can to remove partisan politics from the appointment process,” Chaudhuri said. “I believe one of those steps would be barring lobbyists from serving on the UNC Board of Governors. I remain concerned that the UNC Board of Governors has become a revolving door of lobbyists and retired legislators. I think at the end of the day, those types of appointments will result in undue political interference from the legislature.”
Three lobbyists currently serve on the board — Thom Goolsby, Reggie Holley and David Powers. If passed, the bill would not apply to their current term but to appointments made after it is passed.
A former lobbyist, Darrell Allison, recently left the board to become chancellor at Fayetteville State University. Allison’s controversial path, from lobbyist to the UNC Board of Governors to chancellor chosen by that very board — even though he lacked direct experience working in higher education beyond his political appointments — has been seen by many as the sort of political self-dealing that needs to be addressed.
Members of the board themselves concede parts of SB546 may make sense.
“I don’t know that I’ve noticed any particular conflict of interest in working with members who are lobbyists,” said board member Marty Kotis. “I’ve worked with Reggie Holley. I think he’s super sharp and I haven’t seen him have any conflicts. But there are conflicts and there are perceived conflicts. I can see where people would perceive a conflict in some of these things.”
Kotis has long said he would support a “cooling off” period between serving in the legislature and becoming a member of the board. Keeping the spouses of legislators, university employees and their spouses from being appointed to the board may also make sense, he said.
“Those kinds of appointments can be seen as feathering your own nest,” Kotis said. “It’s probably good to limit the perception of that.”
Isaiah Green, the board’s non-voting student member, said he looks forward to seeing the conversation over the bills.
“I definitely understand why people could have these opinions and concerns about the board,” Green said. “I do think there are possibly strides the board of governors could take to insulate ourselves from conflicts of interests. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that in the time I’ve been on the board, but taking these steps could go further.”
…or making ties even closer?
House Bill 455, however, tacks in the opposite direction, making the ties between the board of governors and the General Assembly closer and more explicit.
To that end, the bill would appoint two members of the state House and two members of the State Senate as non-voting members of the board. The bill says this is necessary because it is “in the best interests of this State for the General Assembly to better understand the priorities, opportunities, and challenges of The University of North Carolina and to improve communication between The University of North Carolina and the General Assembly.”
Directly appointing legislators to the board will “serve to strengthen the relationship between the General Assembly and The University of North Carolina and will serve as a conduit to further the support of higher education in this State by the General Assembly,” the bill says.
Richards, the student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill, said it’s obvious there isn’t a communication problem between the General Assembly and the board of governors, many of whom talk publicly about how often they are in touch with legislators.
“What we’re talking about is making it so the General Assembly is even more involved in every decision, bringing even more politics into something that is already too political,” Richards said. “They need to be talking about ways that the UNC Board of Governors and the UNC System can communicate better with students, with faculty and with staff, with its institutions. They don’t need to be finding ways to make them even closer to the General Assembly.”
Chaudhuri said he agrees. Communication and understanding between legislators and the board of governors is important. But once they’re appointed, board members should be able to do their jobs without worrying if they’re following marching orders closely enough.
“From my perspective there are a number of things that need to be done to further remove partisan politics from the appointment process and the way they do their jobs,” said Chaudhuri. “I would also like to go further. I think all board members should serve a single eight year term rather than four-year terms.”
That would further remove members from concerns about re-appointment, he said.
The governor, who is elected by the entire state should also have a hand in appointing members, Chaudhuri said. The current Republican majority has diminished the governor’s role even in appointing trustees at the individual university level, a move they made when Democrat Roy Cooper was elected governor.
Giving the governor appointment authority is a recommendation offered in a 2005 report commissioned by the conservative John William Pope Center for Higher Education (now the James G. Martin center for Academic Renewal), Chaudhuri pointed out. The political winds have changed since then, with conservatives frequently moving to strip powers from the governor and shift them to the GOP-dominated General Assembly.
“We need diversity on the board of governors,” Chaudhuri said. “And that doesn’t just mean political diversity. That includes racial, gender and geographic diversity. We need more HBCU graduates on the board. The way things are now, we’re not seeing that. Changing who serves on the board and how they get there is a good start.”