NC governor wants changes to how UNC boards are chosen

NC governor wants changes to how UNC boards are chosen
NC governor wants changes to how UNC boards are chosen

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday announced a new commission to make recommendations on changing how the boards of trustees of the University of North Carolina system and its 17 Member schools are chosen, with a view to broadening their membership by political leanings, race and gender.

The Democratic governor essentially blamed the Republican-controlled legislature for contributing to problems within the governance structure of one of the country’s major public university systems – with 240,000 students and UNC-Chapel Hill and the NC State University as flagship campuses.

“The UNC system is the envy of the nation for what we’ve built here,” Cooper said at an Executive Mansion press conference. “But there are signs of problems that arise when all appointed leaders are chosen by too few…we have an appointed university leadership that does not come close to reflecting our diversity.”

As a reminder of the partisanship he attributes to the system’s downfall, Cooper stood alongside commission co-chairs Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings, two recent presidents of the UNC system. Both have been ousted in different ways by previous editions of the UNC Board of Governors that were controlled by GOP-approved members.

“Our public universities, in particular, must be places where every person feels welcome, heard, and represented,” said Spellings, the system’s 2016-2019 chairman and U.S. Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush. . “We have to leave our own unique interests – whether political, geographic or institutional – at the door and we have to be what I call organized to succeed.”

For 50 years, the legislature has chosen the voting members of the system’s Board of Governors, half elected by the House and half by the Senate. The number of board members was recently reduced from 32 to 24.

Critics have complained that the representation of racial minorities and women on the Board of Governors is insufficient.

“We know that how university leaders are chosen needs to expand to more reflect who we are,” said Cooper, who earned undergraduate and law degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill. “The system needs to be reformed.

Legislative officials were immediately chilled by the committee’s work, which Cooper wants to complete before the end of the General Assembly’s main business session next year. Legislators would have to approve significant changes for them to be implemented.

The legislature will likely remain in GOP hands for the next two years after next week’s election.

“Governance of higher education is constitutionally the responsibility of the General Assembly,” Neal Inman, chief of staff to House Speaker Tim Moore, wrote in an email. “There is no point in changing the structure of the UNC system, regardless of the report produced by this politically motivated commission.”

Republicans wielded their political power in the 2010s after seizing control of the State House and Senate by filling the board of directors with like-minded members.

And weeks before Cooper was sworn in as governor in early 2017, the Legislature passed legislation eliminating Cooper’s ability to appoint certain members of the campus board of trustees and giving those choices to legislative leaders.

Cooper’s executive order creating the commission envisions at least 15 members.

The governor said potential solutions could include creating designated council positions for the minority party in the General Assembly, or appointing a wider range of officials, such as community college leaders or the superintendent of the public instruction.

A lawsuit in 2001 led the Democratic-controlled legislature to scrap board membership quotas for racial minorities, women and minority party members of the General Assembly.

If the commission recommends giving appointing powers to the governor, Cooper said he would ask that they not take effect until after he leaves office in January 2025.

But Senate Leader Phil Berger said later Tuesday that “one would have to be naïve to think that the purpose of this ‘commission’ is to do anything other than recommend to the governor to secure partisan appointments to university councils. ”.

Ross, a former judge, president of Davidson College and director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, was hired as system president in 2011 and announced his departure in 2015.

At the time of her announced departure as chairwoman, Spellings acknowledged that disputes with Republican board members made it a good time to leave. The board didn’t like some of its hiring decisions to run individual campuses or the system’s response to protests demanding the removal of a Confederate soldier statue on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus that was eventually removed. demolished by a mob in 2018.

The UNC-Chapel Hill board also faced bad publicity over a 2021 land dispute with journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her work on the 1619 project.

Cooper didn’t pin the issues on current chairman Peter Hans, saying “he’s doing a good job, especially under the circumstances.”

Hans said in a written statement, “Disagreements over politics and governance are a fact of life, and we welcome public interest and accountability, as the fundamentals of the University of North Carolina have never been stronger.”

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