A decade-long conservative majority
Pope, like many BOG members, is a businessman who has played an influential role in state politics for the last 30 years. He accrued much of his wealth as the chief executive officer and chairperson of Variety Wholesalers, a vast retail chain that runs over 350 stores in 16 states. He served in the N.C. House of Representatives for four terms and later became former Gov. Pat McCrory’s state budget director.
Throughout his career, Pope has funded and been affiliated with a variety of right-leaning groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, which was influential in organizing the Tea Party movement.
Pope said his contributions to Republican candidates don’t affect his decisions on the board.
“They mean that I support Republican candidates for public office and I think the policies enacted by Republicans will best serve the people of North Carolina and America,” he said.
The hundreds of thousands of dollars that BOG members have contributed to Republicans illustrates a conservative dominance of the board, one that began in the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans took control of the state legislature after over 100 years of Democratic control. As BOG members’ terms ended, the legislature was able to quickly appoint Republicans to the board. There are now no self-identified Democrats on the board.
“It’s arguably not been great for North Carolina to have such an important Board of Governors, a policymaking board that is, I guess I could say, 100 percent skewed to one political party,” Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause N.C., a nonpartisan group that aims to improve democracy, said.
Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, a conservative nonprofit co-founded by Pope, said this conservative dominance doesn’t affect the BOG’s decision-making.
“In many ways, the Republican board is interested in the same thing that the Democratic board was interested in,” she said. “They're interested in student success, they're interested in access. They want to do what's best for the individual institutions.”
Lloyd Kramer, who served as the UNC faculty chairperson until this June, said he’s seen definitive changes in how the board operates.
“The Board of Governors seems to have become much more involved in the management and policies of specific campuses in a way that did not exist before,” he said. “I don't know if that's a direct outcome of the change in the leadership of the BOG, but I do think that there have been BOG members who felt that the University was too liberal or too oriented toward the liberal arts.”
Mimi Chapman, the University’s current faculty chairperson, wrote a letter to the BOG in August asking for more autonomy regarding reopening campus during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I write to urge you to give our Chancellor the authority to make decisions for our campus in light of the global pandemic and conditions on our campus,” she said.
Chapman did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Kramer was serving as faculty chairperson while the University was developing its plan to reopen campus. He said although he wasn’t aware of the BOG explicitly requiring UNC to reopen, he felt the University was being strongly encouraged to continue with in-person learning.
“It's clear that key leaders of the Republican-led legislature, as well as the Republican Lieutenant Governor, were favoring reopening,” he said. “And the Board of Governors is closely aligned with those actions of state government. So there is a way in which you can imagine that the Board of Governors leadership team was aware of the legislative leadership's desire to reopen as much as possible.”
When asked if the board’s ideological slant affected its policymaking, Josh Ellis, the UNC System’s associate vice president for media relations, said he did not have comment.
Conflicts of interest
In many cases, BOG members have donated to the campaigns of lawmakers who voted on their appointment to the board. Clark has given $5,400 over the past two years to the Philip E. Berger Committee, representing the current president pro tempore of the N.C. Senate, who voted to appoint Clark to the board earlier this year.
“I recognize that that's how lawmakers know some of the citizens of our state, and there's nothing illegal to make a political contribution,” Phillips said. “But there's just that connection that is, I don't think, healthy for governance.”
Donald Bryson, president of the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank co-founded by Pope, said this connection doesn’t necessarily indicate anything inappropriate.
“The appointments are not necessarily unilateral,” he said. “It's not just (N.C. House Speaker) Tim Moore saying, ‘You have been dubbed as a governor of the University System of North Carolina and go forth’ — both chambers of the General Assembly have to vote on this as a safeguard on it.”
Moore did not respond to a request for comment.
Members of the BOG have not only donated to lawmakers who voted on their appointment, but also to one another. Pearl Burris-Floyd, the secretary of the BOG, ran for state labor commissioner this year and received two contributions from her fellow board members. Randy Ramsey, the board’s chairperson, gave $5,000 to her campaign, and Anna Spangler Nelson gave $2,000. Burris-Floyd did not respond to requests for comment.
Taking politics out of the equation
The UNC BOG is not unique in its partisan appointment process. Most states allow the governor or the legislature to appoint the members of public university governing boards, making it almost certain that the board will reflect the ideology of the officials who appointed it.
“Members of boards of governors and boards of trustees always come from the donor class of people, that is something that is standard across states and across time,” Robinson said. “And since this particular crop of board members were nominated by our Republican General Assembly, it's not at all surprising that their contributions are also to Republican candidates.”
For Kramer, this process does not lend itself to an effective board.
“In the long run, the Board of Governors will become more effective if there's more political balance,” he said. “And if there's more diversity, in all forms: diversity of social backgrounds, as well as diversity in terms of expertise and experience.”
Phillips stressed that this is not merely an issue of the Republican board, but rather an indication of a fundamentally broken system.
“The Democrats, they might have abused and there probably were connections of big donors who sat on that board — undoubtedly, that's the case,” he said. “It would be nice to get rid of all of that to where we had the best North Carolina could offer, without having consideration of the size of their checkbook.”