RALEIGH (May 4, 2023) – Gov. Roy Cooper’s UNC Governance Commission began discussing its recommendations this week to make UNC governing boards more representative of the state, more ethical and less politicized.
“I think everybody wanted less politics in the Board of Governors and the Boards of Trustees,” said Commission Member and former UNC Board of Governors Chair Lou Bissette.
The commission – created by Cooper in November after complaints about the ways the systemwide Board of Governors and campus Board of Trustees operate – must make recommendations to Cooper by next month.1
The commission held six public forums across the state this spring. Staff summarized public comments at the forums in several categories:
- Greater transparency on board actions.
- Greater diversity of all kinds, including regional and political diversity. Some suggested enlarging boards to increase viewpoints. Others said the Board of Governors seems more politicized today than it once did.
- Shared governance, with greater input from faculty, staff and students.
- Board members who are lobbyists have an inherent conflict of interest because of the leverage state legislators have over their livelihoods.
- The need to improve training for board members.
- And the need for longer terms and/or term limits to give board members greater independence.
Former UNC Charlotte Chancellor Philip Dubois reported that currently, just six of 24 Board of Governors members are women, while nearly 60% of students are women. Just five members are minorities at the same time 46% of undergraduates are minorities. And geographically, the Triangle region is far over-represented versus other regions of the state.
The board – all of whose members are appointed by the NC General Assembly – has just one Democrat, though the NC House elected another Democrat, R. Gene Davis, Jr., on Wednesday.2
THE COMMISSION BEGAN DISCUSSING potential recommendations Thursday in broad terms:
- Establish a UNC Center for Higher Education Governance at one campus to promote thought leadership on governance, provide orientation for new board members, provide continuing education for members of governing boards, training for prospective members and a database of potential appointees, strengthen policies on ethical behavior.
“I think it’s an opportunity to be a leader,” said Commission Co-Chair and former UNC System President Tom Ross. Ross stressed that through its research and other work, the center would work to assist, not look over the governing boards’ shoulders.
- Increase the size of the Board of Governors. Such a move would make it easier to achieve gender, racial, geographic and political diversity. Commission Member John Fraley – a member of the BOG and a former chair of the BOG Nominating Committee in the state House – said that if the commission recommends increasing the board from 24 members to 32, the eight new members could be appointed by the minority political party to provide broader viewpoints.
- General Assembly would continue to fill all Board of Governors appointments. The state constitution gives the legislature authority over higher education in North Carolina. Commission members discussed the possibility of adding the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and the NC Community College President or their designees as members.
The three systems too often operate in silos rather than work together, said Commission Member Ann Goodnight. She added that Wisconsin has pursued a similar arrangement. But others questioned whether those officials have time for Board of Governors meetings.
- Alternative Board of Trustees selections. To expand membership but avoid taking away current appointment powers, members seemed to agree it would be easiest to expand campus Boards of Trustees from 12 members to 15.
Though some members wanted to restore authority to appoint trustees that the legislature stripped from the governor in 2016, “Realistically, I don’t think you’re going to see the legislature put appointments back with the governor,” said Fraley.
- Increase the length of Board of Governors and Board of Trustees terms – but limit them to one term. It can take several years for a board member to get to know how an institution works, said Commission Co-Chair and former UNC President Margaret Spellings.
“There is a steep learning curve about this business,” she said. If members can’t be reappointed, she said, it should increase members’ independence and reduce politicization because they wouldn’t worry about reappointment.
- Enhance transparency and accountability. Livestream and record board meetings, which are public meetings. Give each board member an institutional (and public) email account. Require vacancies to be filled through a public process that includes distribution of the current demographic makeup of the board.
- Require a cooling-off period for former legislators, members of the Board of Governors or Boards of Trustees, and lobbyists. Many have complained about a built-in conflict of interest for lobbyists appointed to governing boards. Spellings noted that the General Assembly itself requires former legislators to wait six months before they can register as lobbyists.
Ross said the Commission will finalize the recommendations and produce a report to be considered at its June meeting.
If and when the recommendations go to the General Assembly, “They’re not all going to be accepted … but hopefully, some of them will be,” he said. “I hope that whatever is accomplished makes things better.”