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'Emergency meeting' in UNC president search leaves many in the dark

Board of Governors Chairperson John Fennebresque (pictured) called an emergency meeting of the board Friday to discuss current UNC-System President Tom Ross' replacement.

Board of Governors Chairperson John Fennebresque (pictured) called an emergency meeting of the board Friday to discuss current UNC-System President Tom Ross' replacement.

After 10 months of dealings behind closed doors, the search for the next UNC-system president may be nearing its conclusion.

Following Wednesday's closed meeting by the president search committee, the full Board of Governors met for an emergency meeting Friday.

The meeting went into closed session within two minutes of beginning, in order to discuss the potential qualifications of a candidate to replace current President Tom Ross. Ross, who was forced to resign in January without explanation, will serve until Jan. 2016 or until his replacement has been named.

Legislators and education activists speculate the BOG's top choice is Margaret Spellings, former President George W. Bush's secretary of education, to head the system. Representatives from the left-leaning nonprofit organization, N.C. Policy Watch, reportedly spotted Spellings in the BOG meeting prior to the closed session before she was whisked away.

An emergency meeting can be declared at the discretion of BOG Chairperson, John Fennebresque, and waives the normal waiting period between announcing and convening a meeting.

Fennebresque, whose controversial handling of the presidential search has caused several people to call for his resignation, declined to answer questions after the meeting via UNC-system spokesperson Joni Worthington.

But with less than 48 hours’ notice, a number of people — including at least one BOG member — questioned the reasoning behind the emergency declaration.

N.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and Republican House Speaker Tim Moore co-signed a letter sent to members of the General Assembly expressing their concerns over the emergency meeting late Wednesday afternoon.

Berger and Moore referenced the recently passed Senate Bill 670 that would require the full board to consider at least three final candidates.

While the bill has yet to be signed by Gov. Pat McCrory, the letter stated that calling an emergency meeting to discuss only one candidate could be seen as an attempt to circumvent the bill’s call for transparency.

“Our concern is not about any candidate for the presidency but rather the process by which at least a few members of the Board have utilized that (sic) appears to cut against the fundamental notions of transparency and procedural due process,” they wrote.

Board member Marty Kotis voiced similar concerns.

“I’m not sure why this is an emergency meeting,” he said. “The process here is part of the problem. We all need to pick the right candidate and to make sure we’ve gone through a proper process and make sure we’ve done our jobs.”

Kotis said the meeting’s announcement felt rushed, coming with little notice at a time when many board members, including himself, were out of town.

“We’ve taken 10 months already, what’s the rush now?” he said.

Kotis, who has been a critic of the search process, sent a formal objection to the board late Thursday night, stating the meeting could not be labeled an “emergency” without identifying a pressing issue that required immediate action or shortened notice.

“The Chairman has contrived this 'emergency' as a subterfuge to circumvent Senate Bill 670 which will become law on October 31, 2015, absent a gubernatorial veto,” he wrote.

Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) said the BOG should have gotten the GA's message when the transparency bill passed with near unanimous support in the legislature last month.

"To ignore this and move forward with only one candidate for discussion is wrong. It is a bad process. The students of the University system and our taxpayers deserve better than this."

Jenna Robinson, president of the conservative-leaning Pope Center for Higher Education, said it remains to be seen if the emergency meeting was an attempt to stack the odds in favor of one candidate, but this decision is the most important decision the BOG will make in the next five or six years.

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"When people within the BOG complain about being in the dark, that's a pretty clear sign that it's not been open enough," Robinson said.

@mtmarch @NickNiedz