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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: How did the Board of Governors come to be?

The Old Well is pictured on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022.

What exactly is the “University of North Carolina”? 

Your gut impulse is probably to answer that question with something along the lines of “it’s that school in Chapel Hill that loves light blue but hates dark blue.” 

And if in everyday conversation someone brings up “UNC”, nine times out of ten they’re talking about everyone’s favorite state flagship university. 

But the “University of North Carolina” is more than just UNC-Chapel Hill. Greensboro, Charlotte, Pembroke, Wilmington and Asheville all have distinctive “Universities of North Carolina.” Additionally, Appalachian State University, N.C. State University, East Carolina University, Fayetteville State University, Elizabeth City State University, N.C. Central University and six other institutions, including UNC-Chapel Hill, make up the statewide “University of North Carolina” public universities system. 

Overseeing the tens of thousands of students, thousands of faculty members and countless thousands more staff members is the Board of Governors. They are responsible for decisions that can dramatically affect North Carolina’s public universities, and have held an iron grip on the state’s tertiary schools for decades.

Prior to 1971, only six of the state’s fifteen public universities fell under the authority of a consolidated UNC System. Former Governor (and then-president of Duke University) Terry Sanford criticized this disjointed, inefficient setup in September 1971, telling a General Assembly committee that the schools’ “direction, coordination, and governance need reorganization.” 

He proposed a new plan, under which all public universities in the state would become part of a united University of North Carolina System. Elected by the General Assembly, this new board would manage the budgets and appoint the chancellors of member institutions. Smaller bodies would then be elected by the members of the System board to govern the day-to-day operations of the individual institutions. 

A slightly altered version of this plan soon came to fruition, with the Board of Governors taking over the state’s system of higher education on July 1, 1972. Each school would be directly overseen by a 13-member Board of Trustees composed of eight members appointed by the Board of Governors, four appointed by the governor, and the school’s student body president. 

This organizational makeup — a Board of Governors appointed by the General Assembly overseeing Boards of Trustees elected overwhelmingly by the Board of Governors — meant that the state legislature had an enormously powerful grip on how the state’s schools were run. 

Today, the Board of Governors stands as a 24-member body, with members serving staggered four years terms. 

In 2010, the Republicans took control of the state General Assembly in a landslide victory, and have held both chambers ever since. The Board’s makeup and Republican repeat victories in the General Assembly resulted in a Board of Governors with an outsized Republican majority relative to the political composition of the state. 

According to Carolina Demography, North Carolina is roughly evenly split between Republicans (30 percent), Democrats (36 percent), and those unaffiliated with a party (33 percent). Despite this, the Board of Governors is currently made up of 16 Republicans, seven independents, and just one Democrat. 

At one point, there was a check on the legislature’s power. Until 2016, the governor was responsible for appointing four members of each school’s Board of Trustees. In November, however, Democrat Roy Cooper defeated Republican incumbent Pat McCrory in that year’s gubernatorial election. Between the election and Cooper’s inauguration, the legislature and Governor McCrory made quick work of stripping the governor of this power, as well as a handful of others. As a result, the Republicans in the General Assembly have unchecked power over the Board of Governors, the Boards of Trustees and, as a result, our education. 

This ideological slant has manifested in many of our school’s modern controversies. The botched handling of Silent Sam, the school’s slapdash response to the coronavirus pandemic and the troubled situation surrounding the tenure of Nikole Hannah-Jones were all consequences of the partisan makeup of our Boards of Trustees and Board of Governors. 

As public universities, the state has an obligation to find a way to justly and equitably govern these valuable institutions of higher learning. And if the General Assembly were truly democratically elected, and if the governor had a say in appointments and if the Board of the Governors represented the demographics of North Carolina, then the unity and semi-autonomy offered by the Board of Governors and Board of Trustees system would be fine. 

Yet, the governor has no say. The Boards are not reflective of the state and the General Assembly hardly reflects the will of North Carolina’s voters. Despite the Republicans and Democrats both receiving roughly half the votes statewide in the 2020 state House of Representatives race, the Republicans won nearly three out of five seats. The results were similarly egregious in the state Senate. 

In her statement announcing her decision not to accept a delayed tenure offer at UNC-Chapel Hill, Nikole Hannah-Jones told those overseeing the University that, “respecting faculty governance and academic freedom” there required, “a change to the way the boards are appointed so that they actually reflect the demographics of the state and the student body, rather than the whims of political power.” 

As this past decade has hopefully shown, the decisions brought about by “the whims of political power” are neither sufficient nor desirable for governing world-class institutions of learning. 


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