CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that eight members of the Board of Trustees are appointed by the North Carolina General Assembly, four are appointed by the governor and the student body president fills the thirteenth and final spot. The UNC-system Board of Governors appoints eight people to serve as trustees, and the other four are appointed by the General Assembly. The last member is the student body president who serves as an ex-officio member. The story has been updated with the correct way members of the BOT are appointed. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.
When the Board of Trustees huddled in closed session on Aug. 28, awaiting instruction on how to proceed on the delicate issue of Silent Sam, Savannah Putnam was there.
As the University's student body president, her job is to act as a liaison between the students and administration. Yet despite her status as a voting ex-officio member of the BOT, she was asked to leave a conversation which took place approximately a week before the BOT and Board of Governors held special meetings to discuss the monument.
Haywood Cochrane, chairperson of the Board of Trustees, asked Putnam to drop out at some point during the call. He said that since Putnam previously made a public statement supporting the removal of Silent Sam from McCorkle Place, there was now a conflict of interest.
WRAL released copies of electronic communications among University administration from the day of Silent Sam's toppling and the following day. In the release, an Aug. 21 text from a redacted number in a University administration group chat reads: "Haywood—here’s a draft response to share with DTH if you approve. In her role as student body president, Trustee Savannah Putnam issued a public statement about the Confederate Monument that is in opposition with the University’s point of view. Because of this conflict of interest, I suggested that she may want to recuse herself from the call, and she agreed. We also agreed to reconnect at a later time. Haywood Cochrane Chair, Board of Trustees"
In a Putnam administration group message obtained by the DTH, the SBP recounts the situation differently.
“I just got kicked off the BOT call,” she said.
North Carolina statute GS 163A-211, the conflict of interest law affecting public positions, says “a covered person or legislative employee shall not knowingly use (their) public position in an official action or legislative action that will result in financial benefit to (them), a member of (their) extended family, or business with which (they are) associated."
The conflict of interest law is financially oriented. It can only otherwise be evoked to exclude someone in a public position if “the conflict of interest would prevent a public servant from fulfilling a substantial function or portion of the public servant's public duties.”
Although she wasn't present for the initial conference call following Silent Sam's removal, Putnam joined the Board of Trustees when they entered closed session at their next scheduled meeting.
“I was in closed session,” she said. “I’m still a part of the Board, so I have to be there. There was a BOG meeting, and then we came back collectively together and got the deadline, rather than decided on the deadline.”
During the meeting’s opening, Cochrane read aloud a statement in which he asked any Trustee to identify a conflict of interest if they were aware of one. No one spoke. Putnam stayed at the table.
T. Greg Doucette, a lawyer in Durham who served as the student representative to the BOG while at North Carolina State University, said that often, governing boards will ask members to recuse themselves quietly, rather than involving official procedure.
“They ask nicely with the strong implication that if you don’t, they'll be less inclined to work with you in the future,” he said. “And that's kind of the Catch-22 (Putnam) was in.”
Doucette said that even if Putnam believed her exclusion was inappropriate, she would be hard-pressed to challenge the decision. Lawsuits and official complaints are drawn-out processes; the BOT only convenes about once a month, and Putnam is a senior approaching the second half of her term.
The relationship between the appointed members of the BOT and the SBP depends on the composition of the Board at any given time, Doucette said.
“Trustees are alumni who have been out 20-30 years. Most of them are ridiculously wealthy,” he said. “They're far removed from day-to-day student life. Most of them don't spend much time on campus, so they don't see the impact of the decisions that they make.”
The SBP is supposed to represent student interests while serving on the BOT. Just as Putnam was chosen by students to represent their interest, the BOT was chosen by politicians, who Doucette said always want something in return.
“Everyone's got their own masters, and they're trying to please the people that put them in their position,” he said.
Eight members of the BOT are appointed by the UNC-system Board of Governors, and four by the General Assembly, with the SBP filling the thirteenth and final spot and serving as a ex-officio member. The BOG, however, is elected entirely by the General Assembly. They choose the state system president, and by extension, “determine who the chancellor is” for the different UNC schools, Doucette said.
“You have a big chunk of the BOT picked by the legislature, and then 100 percent of the BOG picked by the legislature, and then all of the funding and statutory law is passed by the legislature with veto proof majority,” Doucette said. “It’s still very much a General Assembly-run game.”
When asked to comment on the BOT’s relationship with Putnam, UNC Media Relations manager Kate Luck said, “Like all student body presidents, she serves on the Board in an ex-officio role to provide an important perspective from the student body.”
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