Six new members will join the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, changing the group’s demographic makeup but likely not its conservative bent.
The new trustees will have to contend with the fallout from the Nikole Hannah-Jones case, which has prompted an exodus of Black faculty and raised questions about the effectiveness of the university’s shared governance structure.
The board will now consist of eight white men, two Black men, one Asian-American man, one Black woman and one white woman. This makes the new board slightly more diverse than its predecessor, which consisted of 10 white men, one white woman, one Black woman and one Black man.
Three of the new trustees are registered Republicans, while the remaining trustees’ voter registrations are not publicly available. Regardless, as appointees of the Republican-dominated legislature, these members are expected to maintain conservative dominance of the board.
Four of the new members were appointed by the UNC Board of Governors, while the other two were appointed by the General Assembly.
Rob Bryan joins the board after previous stints as member of the state House of Representatives and the Board of Governors. At the legislature, Bryan was a strong supporter of “school choice,” and in 2016, he sponsored a bill to create the “innovative school district” — a controversial program designed to allow private contractors to take over the operation of underperforming public schools. Last year, Policy Watch uncovered a confidential letter to the State Board of Education alleging mismanagement of the sole school managed by the program. This past June, the BOE cut ties with the operator. The state Senate’s latest budget proposal would end the program in 2024.
Perrin Jones is another former Republican state lawmaker. Jones served in the state House for a little over a year after being appointed to fill the vacancy left by Greg Murphy, who was elected to the U.S. Congress. He narrowly lost re-election last year. He currently works as an anesthesiologist at Vidant Medical Center.
The other four new trustees have worked primarily in the private sector.
Malcolm Turner, a BOG appointee, is an executive at DraftKings, a sports betting website. He has previously served as athletic director at Vanderbilt University and president of the NBA’s G League. According to LinkedIn, he lives in Boston, Mass.
His appointment drew concerns from some board members, including Art Pope, who argued that Turner’s position with the betting site could create conflicts of interest in the future when making decisions regarding UNC Athletics.
“The fact of the matter is that DraftKings is promoting sports betting on college sports, and I just do not think that’s appropriate,” Pope said at a BOG meeting in April.
In North Carolina, sports betting is only legal at tribal casinos, but lawmakers introduced a bill to fully legalize the practice in April, but stalled in committee, and it’s unclear whether it will be taken up in the current legislative session.
Six board members voted against Turner’s appointment, with many citing concerns similar to Pope’s. Turner has not commented on the concerns raised by the board. Along with UNC Student Body President Lamar Richards and Trustee Teresa Artis Neal, Turner will be one of three Black members on the 13-member board.
Ramsey White is a businesswoman who has worked for RBC Centura Bank in Raleigh and as assistant director of development at the Morehead-Cain Foundation — the organization that oversees UNC’s Morehead Scholarship program. Carolina Alumni Review reported in April that White now resides in Washington, DC. State voter records indicate that she was registered as a Republican when she lived in North Carolina.
Marty Kotis, an appointee from the legislature, is a real estate developer from Greensboro. Kotis has served on the UNC Board of Governors since 2013, and will now serve as a trustee for his alma mater.
Since 2018, Kotis has given over $30,000 to Republican candidates for state office, including over $6,000 to gubernatorial candidate Dan Forest.
Vinay Patel is the owner of a Charlotte hotel chain and was appointed by the legislature. Patel was outspoken about the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on his business, and told the Charlotte Observer that he’d lost an estimated $2.5 million because of the pandemic.
The new board members on old issues
Kotis and Patel spoke with Policy Watch about the board’s recent controversies, and what they expect to address during their terms as trustees.
The Nikole Hannah-Jones saga ended Tuesday when the award-winning journalist announced she would be declining the offer to teach at UNC and, instead, become a professor at Howard University. Kotis summed it up as an “odd situation.”
“If she’d been in discussions about that before, I think she needs to provide some transparency about that,” Kotis said. “Because it would be really bad form, if she had all of this lined up, and yet didn’t disclose that to the university or the students that are out there advocating for her.”
Hannah-Jones told Policy Watch that she started hearing from other universities, “the day the story broke” about the Board of Trustees’ initial decision not to take up her tenure recommendation.
UNC’s Black Student Movement and the faculty of UNC’s journalism have commended Hannah-Jones’s decision.
“We applaud her decision to teach at a university where Blackness is celebrated instead of barely tolerated,” Taliajah Vann, president of UNC’s BSM said at a press conference on Tuesday. “And we encourage other Black academics to do the same.”
Patel didn’t condemn the decision-making, but expressed concern about how out-of-hand the process had become.
“I don’t have any official thoughts on it,” Patel said. “The only thing I’ll say is I’m kind of surprised that it got to where it got to. We could have done the process differently so it didn’t become national news — that’s the last thing anybody needed.”
A key issue the new board expects to discuss is tenure. The academic institution at the heart of the Hannah-Jones controversy has prompted questions among some board members about the future of tenure at UNC. Patel and Kotis both said the practice could use a thorough examination.
“I’m not a fan of tenure overall,” Kotis said. “The reason I’m not a fan of tenure is you create situations in which a small group of people can make these sorts of decisions. It becomes a club, and if you don’t share the same viewpoint, or if they are racist among that club, you’ve got the potential for abuse. I believe pay and longevity within the system should be based on your skills, your abilities, and the relevance of what you are teaching or studying.”
Patel echoed Kotis’s comments and suggested the board could evaluate the institution in the future.
“I don’t know if the board will or will not take it up but I really think a discussion is warranted at the very least,” he said. “Just to kind of look and see how things are, where we are — at the end of the day we may come back and say this is the right thing to do, and we need to do it because of the pros that are that are attached to it — but some sort of general discussion on the topic I think would be a good idea.”
Asked about the board members’ views on tenure, Mimi Chapman, chairwoman of UNC faculty, said: “I really would prefer not to dignify it with a response.”
The new board will also face growing calls for a racial reckoning at UNC — a movement that has led some Black faculty members to leave the school, student leaders to encourage prospective Black students to look elsewhere, and community activists to demand change from the administration.
Leaders in the UNC BSM and Carolina Black Caucus have called on the university to hire more Black faculty and staff. Kotis said he won’t support hiring practices that center around the race of the applicant.
“There is no place for racial discrimination on that campus or in the system, in my opinion,” Kotis said. “If someone wants to tell me a racist decision is occurring, I will fight with them to ensure that that is not occurring — it has no place on campus. But also, I’m not going to vote to institute a racist policy where we’re judging people based purely on the color of their skin, because that’s racism again.”
Kotis also said he’d like to examine the tenure process to see if racial discrimination had occurred. He added that this would likely not be the fault of the board, however, given that they do not actively seek out candidates and typically (with the significant exception of the Hannah-Jones case,) act as a rubber stamp for the faculty’s recommendations.
“If there’s any racism occurring, it would have to occur in the approval process, which would be the faculty involved in that decision,” he said.
The role of the campus police is another likely topic for the incoming board. At the June 30 Board of Trustees meeting, UNC Police forcibly removed demonstrators from the boardroom after they refused to leave following the board’s decision to go into closed session. A Spectrum News video of the event appeared to show that the vice president of the BSM, Julia Clark, was struck in the face by the department’s interim chief, Rahsheem Holland.
Black student leaders have called for the immediate termination of Holland, as well as a decreased police presence on campus.
“I don’t think we need to be the wild west; I believe we have to have law and order,” Kotis said. “It can’t just be threats and intimidation, so I do believe that it’s important that we agree upon the standard of conduct and rules and laws, and that we abide by them. So I’m not going to be sympathetic in reducing the police department or reducing the police presence.”
He added that he believed police officers should act responsibly and that acts of racism would never be tolerated.
The BSM president reiterated on Tuesday that their protest had been nonviolent.
“Use of excessive force against students, especially students who are nonviolent protesters is something we will never accept,” she said.
Patel said one of his top priorities is restoring the university’s image.
“It’s my alma mater, I love this place,” he said. “…It’s the first public institution, we’ve got to bring this back — bring the stature back — and for whatever was lost, it needs to come back and be represented as the top-notch institution where everybody is treated (equally) and everybody has an opportunity to voice an opinion, to grow and get an education.”
“The shared governance model is not working”
In 2016, following Pat McCrory’s loss in the gubernatorial race, North Carolina Republicans quickly passed a series of of new laws stripping governors of many of their powers. Prior to this time, the governor was responsible for appointing four members to the board of trustees at each UNC campus. The UNC System Board of Governors appointed the remaining eight; and the final member was the school’s student body president.
Under the new law, the governor’s four appointees are now decided by the General Assembly — which has been dominated by Republicans for over a decade.
This appointment process, which has resulted in boards dominated by a single party, has come under criticism in recent years, with faculty saying it allows the board to use the university to fulfill a political agenda.
“The shared governance model is not working,” Chapman, the university’s faculty chairwoman said. “It has been changed over the last 10 years from its original design and that change has made it into a hyper-partisan situation and it is simply becoming unworkable for our campus.”
Chapman (who published an open letter addressing the current situation at UNC-Chapel Hill in the Daily Tar Heel on Wednesday of this week) pointed to several recent controversies the school had endured, including the situation surrounding the ‘Silent Sam’ Confederate monument and the Hannah-Jones hiring, in which political interference from the board had swayed decisions.
“They are enacting a partisan agenda that has very little to do with running a world class research university,” she said. “…I just think we are at a point where serious re-evaluation of what is happening has to take place.”
Kotis argues that the appointment process is not political, but rather “representative.”
“In a representative government, the idea is that you elect a representative, they then speak on your behalf, and as they make decisions, they’re making them on your behalf as well,” he said. “It’s not just about the students — the students are a very important constituency — but they are receiving the benefits of the people of the state’s largesse.”
Chapman pointed to the state’s history of race-based gerrymandering that led the state courts to order the legislature to draw fairer congressional districts in 2019.
“If the political party in question has created districts to create such ‘representation,’ that’s false,” “…They’re representatives because they draw districts in a particular way, so I don’t think that is an honest argument.”
Hannah-Jones herself criticized the process in her letter explaining her decision not to come to UNC. “This requires a change to the way the boards are appointed so that they actually reflect the demographics of the state and the student body, rather than the whims of political power,” she wrote.
Demi Dowdy, spokesperson for state House Speaker Tim Moore, said he has no interest in any such change.
“The UNC Board of Trustees is appointed by the Board of Governors and General Assembly to represent the entire state, not just the wishes of left-wing college towns, students and faculty,” Dowdy said. “The current board is composed of accomplished professionals of a variety of backgrounds, and there is no appetite for changing the appointment structure.”
Patel said he would not let himself be influenced by partisan politics, and that he would work to genuinely listen to the concerns of faculty during his term.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to have a process,” he said. “This is the process that we have right now. Until a better one is created, we’ve got to go by what’s on the books right now.”
The new trustees will join their first board meeting July 14 and 15.
UNC journalism student Kyle Ingram is a summer intern at NC Policy Watch.