According to the Federal Election Commission, board members and leaders have donated thousands of dollars to political campaigns, sometimes to the politicians who appoint them.
Democracy N.C.’s Executive Director Bob Hall said the BOG and N.C. General Assembly’s long history has contributed to what he calls a built-in “good ol’ boy” system.
“It does look like people are chosen to serve on the boards because of their coziness or familiarity with the legislators (and) legislative leaders,” Hall said.
Inherent political ties
When the state legislature was reorganized in the 1970s, the Board of Governors was created to monitor budgeting, spending and policy-making for the entire system.
Ferrel Guillory, a UNC journalism professor and director of the Program on Public Life, said this means the majority party in the legislature determines the members of the board after a period of lobbying and discussion.
“It’s an interesting process in which people who want to serve on the Board of Governors campaign for it among the legislators,” he said.
He said since members of the board are usually civic-minded, actively engaged people, their contributions to campaigns have been a reality for more than 40 years.
Mitch Kokai, spokesperson for the right-leaning John Locke Foundation, said ties among board members and the political establishment are longstanding.
“This has always been a case of legislative leaders appointing who they want to be on the Board of Governors,” Kokai said. “Now it’s just a case that the people who are making these appointments are farther away politically from the people who are raising a stink about it.”
Across party lines
There were 16 members of the board who made a total of $827,449 in political contributions from 2007 to 2014, according to a Democracy N.C. report.
And among the board’s leadership, donations have crossed party lines.
Former UNC-system president Tom Ross gave $1,500 to Democratic candidates prior to assuming the presidency in 2011, while his successor Margaret Spellings has donated $24,700 to both Democratic and Republican campaigns dating back to 2010.
John Fennebresque, former chairperson, contributed $260,585 to campaigns from 2007 to 2014, according to Democracy N.C.’s report.
He resigned days after Spellings’ election, and current Chairperson Lou Bissette — who has donated $10,650 to both parties’ campaigns since 1997 — replaced him.
Though he wasn’t involved with politics while in office, Ross said in email that he didn’t think there is a technical conflict of interest for those who are.
“I believe it is a question of whether contributions might impair one’s effectiveness in the role of a leader in higher education,” he said.
The ethical debate
While it may be expected for board members to be people in big money circles, Hall said problems arise when policies stop benefiting the broader public — such as raising tuition.
Hall said leaders like former UNC-system president C.D. Spangler Jr. — who has given more than $100,000 to both Democratic and Republican campaigns to date — tended to try to counter the public scrutiny of such policies.
Board Member Marty Kotis said he’s donated tens of thousands over the years, but there’s rarely any political speech within the board meetings.
He said the topics they cover aren’t necessarily liberal or conservative issues.
“You know, it’s funny. I think I get attacked from all sorts of people with different backgrounds — I don’t know that it’s lumped just to the left,” he said.
“I don’t think a lot of people that criticize me being on the Board of Governors even understand what I have to say in the meetings or how my votes are cast.”