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'It has implications nationally': Former UNC System leaders discuss UNC governance, bipartisanship


The Old Well and South Building sit on E. Cameron Avenue on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2023.

The Coalition for Carolina Foundation, a nonpartisan group with the goal of improving UNC-Chapel Hill, hosted a discussion panel on Feb. 15 that included former UNC System presidents Thomas Ross and Margaret Spellings.

The discussion was moderated by former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp. The three discussed an increase of political influence in the System’s governance and ways in which the UNC Board of Governors and the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees could become more bipartisan.

The coalition released detailed recommendations in June of last year for the improvement of the UNC System's governance, but Ross said the boards did not implement the bulk of them. 

Among the recommendations, the coalition asked the BOG to create a new Center of Higher Education Governance, an entity that would provide orientations for new board members, create recommendations designed to clarify each board's role and keep the public updated by publishing a newsletter.

During the discussion, Ross said the center would provide ongoing and high-quality education for board members to help them understand their roles and responsibilities, which he said needs to be clarified.

All 24 BOG members are elected by the N.C. General Assembly. The UNC-Chapel Hill BOT is composed of eight members elected by the BOG, six members elected by the N.C. General Assembly and the ex-officio student body president.

Both chambers of the N.C. General Assembly currently have a Republican majority, which is reflected in the political makeup of both administrative boards.

“If you win elections in North Carolina, you get to appoint people to these boards,” Thorp said.

 Of the 15 current UNC-Chapel Hill BOT members, only one of the members registered to vote in North Carolina, Student Body President Christopher Everett, is a registered Democrat. There was also one Democrat on the BOG, as of the time of publication of the June report.

Ross said this political shift, which occurred while he was president of the System from 2011 to 2016, concerned him.

“It was increasingly becoming one party dominated, and regardless of which party it is, that’s not healthy,” Ross said.

To ensure a more bipartisan group of board members, the coalition recommended that the N.C. General Assembly increase the size of the BOG from 24 to 32 members, with the minority party in the House of Representatives and the Senate appointing 4 members each.

Spellings said the coalition did its best not to take away any existing authority when creating these recommendations.

“We’re playing a long game here,” Spellings said. “There’ll be a time when these ideas will come, I believe.”

The panel discussed the appointment of Lee Roberts as interim chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill. Ross and Thorp said they extended their support to Roberts when he stepped into the role.

While Roberts has political ties as a former state budget director under Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, he has no professional administrative experience in higher education. Spellings said that a leader like Roberts, or anyone else, will have to stay disciplined to keep the "meddling and micromanaging" by the boards at bay.

“It’s my preference that lifelong academics would be the ones to do these jobs,” Thorp said. “But we’re in a political environment where that’s probably not going to happen all the time.”

The panel discussed the BOG's involvement in collegiate athletics. Because the BOG oversees the planning, development and governance of all 16 constituent universities of the UNC System, Thorp said there are rivalries among BOG members who went to different System schools, which caused issues within the board regarding athletics.

“It’s very hard for a centralized board to decide what’s best athletically for those schools because they’re so vastly different from one another,” Ross said.

They discussed recent controversies involving the UNC-Chapel Hill BOT, from the tenure denial of Nikole Hannah-Jones to the acceleration of the School of Civic Life and Leadership and voting to not consider race, sex or ethnicity in admissions.

Spellings said the political interference occurring at the University along with North Carolina's low faculty pay can hurt the University's chances of landing potential faculty.

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“It has implications nationally,” Spellings said. “If you’re in the Chronicle of Higher Education every week, with some sort of story about what shenanigans are going on, it matters.”


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