On Nov. 1, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order establishing the Commission on the Governance of Public Universities.
This commission will evaluate the current appointment system for governance of UNC System schools — including the Board of Governors and individual boards of trustees — in response to concerns about political influence in these organizations, according to a press release.
The executive order also establishes that, no later than eight months from its issuing date, the commission will deliver a report to the Office of the Governor that will provide recommendations for support and oversight of public universities in North Carolina.
Sam Robinson, student body vice president at UNC-CH, noted some dissatisfaction with decisions by the BOG and BOT.
“I think we've seen a number of times decisions that are made by the Board of Trustees or the Board of Governors that might be seen as political, and what I would definitely say are out of step with a majority of students here in Chapel Hill,” Robinson said.
The BOG is composed of 24 voting members who are elected by the N.C. General Assembly, which has maintained a Republican majority since 2010. The board oversees all 17 UNC System schools.
Each BOT at public universities has 13 members. Eight are appointed by the BOG and four are appointed by the General Assembly — two of which are appointed upon the recommendation of the president pro tempore of the N.C. Senate and two are appointed by the recommendation of the speaker of the house. Each university’s student body president also serves on the board.
The governor of North Carolina also once had the power to appoint two individuals to each Board of Trustees. This changed when former Gov. Pat McCrory passed a law in 2016 that effectively eliminated the responsibility after Cooper had been elected.
“It appears as if the governance structure is not working the way it should,” Tom Ross, the UNC System president from 2011 to 2016, said. “There's more political influence than there should be in the system.”
Ross added that Cooper is in the process of appointing fifty members to the Commission, which will be finalized and announced in the near future.
Ross and Margaret Spellings, UNC System president from 2016 to 2019, will serve as co-chairs of the Commission. Spellings was chosen as Ross’ successor after he was abruptly forced to resign in 2015.
Currently, Ross serves as senior adviser to the Volcker Alliance: a New York-based nonprofit that focuses on empowering the public sector.
Spellings serves as the president and CEO of Texas 2036: a think-tank focused on the state’s future.
Spellings explained she believes Cooper selected her and Ross as co-chairs in order to ensure the commission had bipartisan thinking. A diverse governing board is consistent with the very nature of an institution focused on higher learning, according to the executive order.
“We've got to be organized for success, especially in a time where higher (education) is such a central issue,” she said.
Spellings said an under-appreciated yet critically important part of a successful enterprise or governing organization is knowing how its members get there, who their authorities are and what due process is.
Robinson said he hopes the commission will choose to engage with students from all UNC System institutions.
“It can be forgotten, specifically by students, that we are the reason that these institutions exist,” he said. “You know, we are the largest stakeholders on campus. We are the reason this university operates. Our tuition fees along with money from the legislature, that helps us keep the lights on to keep these wonderful institutions going.”
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