The Coalition for Carolina introduced themselves in an ad in the Carolina Alumni Review entitled “What the hell is going on in Chapel Hill?” last month.
The coalition formed in response to recent concerns about the politicization of University governance and partisan interference in the UNC Board of Trustees and Board of Governors. These concerns were reflected in Chairperson of the Faculty Mimi Chapman’s July op-ed in The Daily Tar Heel, directly calling for a coalition to address them.
“I hope it can be a real voice to do a number of things – first is to shine a light on this governance structure, and also to really highlight the role that this campus plays in the state,” said Chapman, one of the coalition's co-founders and steering committee members.
While the coalition is still in the early days of planning, its goals are to study political interference and its effect of University governance and campus culture.
'There's strength in numbers'
Since the Coalition launched on Sept. 16, about 600 individuals have joined via a signup link on their website, said Joyce Fitzpatrick, chairperson of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media Board of Advisers and another member of the coalition steering committee.
“We want to enroll as many alumni, faculty, staff, students, as possible in the coalition,” she said. “We believe that there's strength in numbers.”
Fitzpatrick and Chapman said there has not been much response from students so far. The coalition's membership has been mostly alumni from across the world who have also been asking its central question, “What is going on at Carolina?”
Chapman said the early goals of the coalition include raising awareness of the University’s governance structure — including the ways it has changed in recent years — and assessing if that structure will work for UNC moving forward.
“The governance structure influences things that happen on campus in very particular ways,” Chapman said. “And often, it is influencing the ways in which controversies develop and the ways in which they can be settled.”
The coalition specifically cited three controversies that sparked its founding: the handling of the Confederate monument Silent Sam after it was toppled on campus in 2018, UNC’s failed reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic in fall 2020, and the initial failure of the BOT to award tenure to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones in summer 2021.
In 2016, after Democrat Roy Cooper was elected governor of North Carolina but before he assumed office, House Bill 17 passed through a Republican-controlled legislature. It placed the power of selecting members of the BOT into the hands of the N.C. General Assembly and the BOG – ensuring that either directly or indirectly, the legislature selects all trustees. Before H.B. 17, the governor appointed four trustees to the BOT.
Chapman said these changes to the trustee appointment process meant there was not as much room for balance on the BOT, prompting increased politicization – or at least the potential for it – and agendas that do not necessarily represent the favor of the institution.
“Would we be happy with this structure if the political cards were flipped?” Chapman said. “I mean, I think the answer's no. In the past, the governance structure worked because people were coming together because they loved the institution, not because they were connected to one political party or another per se.”
Tom Ross, the former president of the UNC System who served from 2011 to 2016, said the makeup of the BOG and state legislature – both of which currently have Republican majorities – has prompted more of a one-party board, which in his view is not the healthiest form of leadership.
“The damage can be often more reputational, because if a university or college gets the reputation of being political – it doesn’t matter whether its party politics or liberals and conservatives or however you want to draw the line,” Ross said. “If it has a reputation of being political, it is harder to attract top talent.”
Marty Kotis III, a current member of the BOT and a former member of the BOG, said he does not feel like the BOT and BOG are as partisan as the coalition has made them out to be.
“I think this coalition is not really designed to work with the Board of Trustees,” Kotis said. “It's more designed to criticize it and the Board of Governors.”
Joyce Fitzpatrick said the coalition hopes to look at the impact of this politicization on UNC – including comparing faculty salaries from 10 years ago to today and examining why donors have distanced themselves from the University.
“We're trying to quantify all that to make sure that we understand exactly what the ramifications of some of the Board of Governors and Board of Trustees decisions have been over the last couple of years,” Fitzpatrick said.
'Support and defend the University of the People'
The coalition’s website does not include specific information about these goals. Its general mission states that it aims to “support and defend the University of the People and its independence from partisan interference.”
Deb Aikat, professor at the Hussman School, said he was concerned about a lack of communication among the coalition – both with the coalition’s membership and with the members of the Board of Trustees.
He said he wants the coalition to succeed, but added that a coalition is based on collaboration and coming together, not just an ad.
“There is a yawning gap in terms of how we are working with each other,” Aikat said, who joined the coalition via the link on the website. “Our Board of Trustees are not saying that this is the society for destruction of Carolina, and our faculty are not saying, 'Well, we are the only society that's involved in the construction of Carolina.'”
As of Sunday, the coalition had not sent any communication to those who have signed up.
Fitzpatrick said the coalition is still in its very early planning stages, which is why there has not been any communication yet with members.
“We're just four weeks in, so as it matures and as we get more members, we’ll poll our members, or, you know, coalition members to see what kind of information and activities they want,” she said.
When asked for comment, UNC Media Relations provided the same statement from Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz as it did on Sept. 16.
"As a taxpayer-supported public institution, our partnership with the General Assembly is critical," Guskiewicz said in the statement. "We are continuing to serve the people of North Carolina and beyond through the University’s priorities and accomplishments as a great public research institution."
Media Relations said it has no further comment at this time.
Delegations of authority
Before the Coalition for Carolina launched, all UNC System institutions were directed to clarify and change, if necessary, the stated authorities of the system’s governing bodies in a July BOG resolution.
At a special meeting of the BOT on Oct. 7, a resolution was passed to amend and restate the current delegations of authority between the BOT, BOG and University administration.
“The question is, when you're delegating these various authorities, when the legislature gets certain powers for the governor or the governor gives power to the Board of Trustees – how much of that has been delegated further?” Kotis said.
The main changes reflected in the resolution all focused on hiring and salary policies — namely, who approves the appointment of fixed-term faculty members and Tier II hires. This category includes associate vice chancellors, assistant vice chancellors, associate deans and assistant deans.
“The governing bodies themselves may think, 'maybe we need to take a look and reflect a little bit, and work with faculty and administration to sort of reimagine our role and think a little more about what it is how we can be most productive in working with the campus,”' Chapman said.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.