While the UNC-system Board of Governors has gained a lot of attention this year due to its role in decisions regarding Silent Sam and Chancellor Carol Folt’s resignation, many people don’t know much about how the Board operates.
The current structure of University of North Carolina System governance was created by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1971, and includes 17 campuses. Since the BOG’s creation, the entirety of its voting members have been elected by the NCGA.
UNC professor Ferrel Guillory, who researches governmental, journalistic and civic leaders of North Carolina, said the electoral process for the BOG is unusual among the higher education governing bodies in other states.
“This system is distinctive – it’s unusual to have all the members of the board elected by the legislature,” Guillory said. “Over time, the Board of Governors system worked and survived challenges, but I think it’s fair to say that there is some rethinking going on because of the way the current membership is handling policy.”
Guillory said at the time of the BOG’s creation, Democrats had a majority in the legislature and so the BOG reflected that. He said the “watershed event” for the BOG followed the 2010 election, when the new Republican majority made a conscious effort to reshape the Board politically.
The NCGA elects board members, which means the BOG often resembles the political makeup of the current legislature. The BOG currently has six women, four African Americans and one Native American among its 28 voting members, according to a 2017 article from the News & Observer.
The 28 voting members are elected for staggered four-year terms. However, there has been a lot of turnover in recent years.
One of the BOG’s responsibilities is to elect a system president. Margaret Spellings was elected president of the UNC system in March 2016, but by 2017, many of the board members that hired Spellings were no longer members, following an election with more turnover than usual. The BOG added eight new members in 2017, and was downsized from 32 members to 28.
Chris Cooper, professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University, is writing a book about how states govern their universities. He said this recent turnover is higher than expected with a governing board.
“I think it's unusually high – there’s been a lot of turnover. Again, these have always been political actors, but it has been increasingly politicized in recent years,” he said.
At a media event attended by The Daily Tar Heel in Nov. 2018, Spellings questioned the organization of the UNC system in relation to Silent Sam controversy.
“One of the things I think is a very interesting question, and frankly an observation about North Carolina generally, is governance,” she said. "You know, are we organized for success? So we’ve got a Board of Trustees, and a chancellor in administration, and a president, and a Board of Governors, and a historical commission and a legislature – so there’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen.”
The BOG will be reduced to 24 members in July 2019. Even so, Cooper said North Carolina has a fairly large board compared to many other states.
“There’s a reasonable argument that that’s good, right? You get more diverse opinions, ideally, you get diverse expertise – so, I don’t think it’s an open-and-shut case, but these choices have consequences, and one person’s diversity of opinion is another person’s slow administration,” Cooper said.
The BOG is a governing board, meaning it has more power and oversight than a coordinating board, which works with multiple state boards to create cooperating programs, Cooper said. As a governing board, the BOG addresses individual campus needs while also maintaining the UNC system.
According to the Policy on Chancellor Searches and Elections under The Code and UNC Policy Manual, chancellors at each of the 17 campuses are chosen by the BOG on the system president’s nomination. While the chancellors technically answer to the system president, the president also operates under the direction of the BOG.
While North Carolina is one of the few states in which the higher education governing body is entirely elected by state legislature, Cooper said Nevada is the only state in which the board is entirely elected by the people. Most states elect board members through a combination of legislature, governor and direct elections.
“I think that’s another question, and I can’t answer this yet, but how well is the will of the people reflected in these boards? And does the structure we have affect that?” he said.
In regards to the recent events surrounding Silent Sam and the moving up of Folt’s resignation, Guillory said he thinks it is clear the BOG is a distinctive, and powerful, higher education system, but whether it exerts power appropriately is a matter of opinion.
“Board members, in my view, need to preserve, protect and defend the strength of the University. This university has had a long, special relationship with the public of North Carolina,” he said. “It’s important that the Board of Governors, as well as Board of Trustees, hold that legacy high in their decision making.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.