RALEIGH (June 27, 2023) – The Chronicle of Higher Education recently labeled the University of North Carolina System “a poster child for troubled governance.”
The UNC Board of Governors and campus Boards of Trustees have compiled a scrapbook of examples of poor governing in recent years: Driving off worthy leaders, interference in campus chancellor searches, interference in student body elections, interference in campus bid processes, interference in the creation of curriculum.
To be sure, appointments to the Board of Governors and campus boards have always been political. But there was once a sense of bipartisanship. Indeed, current System President Peter Hans, a Republican, was elected to the board three times – twice while the General Assembly was controlled by Democrats. Those appointments came after the legislature repealed requirements for the appointment of women, racial and political minorities.
Now a bipartisan commission appointed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper – and led by Republican former UNC President Margaret Spellings and Democratic former UNC President Tom Ross – has made recommendations to depoliticize the System that need to be considered by legislators.
Despite their initial dismissals of the panel’s suggestions as “DOA,” legislators must seriously review the recommendations – not reflexively send them back to the governor stamped “Veto.”
“There is no expectation that this is going to be embraced and enacted immediately,” said Spellings the commission approved its final report yesterday.
Ross said the recommendations are a serious effort and emphasized that they are for the long term. “Hopefully all of them will get some serious consideration,” he said.
Republican legislative leaders maintain that Article 9 of the state Constitution places the General Assembly in charge of the UNC System. Before Cooper even took office, the legislature took swift action after the 2016 election to remove the governor’s authority to appoint members of UNC campus Boards of Trustees – a power governors from both parties held for decades.
These days, women, minorities and Democrats are severely underrepresented on the UNC Board of Governors and most campus Boards of Trustees.
Though women account for nearly 60% of students across the System, they account for just 25% of members of the Board of Governors. Even counting an incoming member yet to be sworn in, the 24-member board has just two Democrats.
At the moment, the Board of Trustees at NC State University has just one female member, even though more than 50% of NC State students are female.
Among its recommendations, the Governance Commission wants to increase the Board of Governors from 24 to 32 members to expand representation. And it would give the added appointments – 25% of the board – to the minority party in each house of the legislature. That move was even backed by Republican members of the commission.
Board of Governors members – all appointed by the General Assembly – are currently limited to three four-year terms.
To provide “insulation” from perceptions that board members are the political tools of legislative leaders, the Governance Commission recommended limiting appointments to a single eight-year term.
That would give board members time to learn how a complex, multi-billion dollar institution works to better perform their duties without looking over their shoulders at the legislature for reappointment.
Some of the most extreme behavior on the Board of Governors has come from registered lobbyists appointed to the board by legislative leaders. They are often viewed as pawns of the legislature, because they depend for their living on the actions of legislators.
In other instances, legislators appointed recently retired colleagues.
The Governance Commission addresses these perceived conflicts of interest by recommending a one-year “cooling-off” period before a former legislator or lobbyist could be appointed to the Board of Governors or a campus Board of Trustees.
The recommendations come as the General Assembly moves to further consolidate its power over other boards, commissions and the NC Community College System, in addition to the UNC System.
Lawmakers have advanced legislation to let the legislature decide on the President of the Community College System and strip appointments the governor currently has to both the State Board of Community Colleges and 58 local campus boards.
After the initial release of the commission’s recommendations, Senate leader Phil Berger said he does not envision restoring the governor’s appointment powers to UNC Boards of Trustees.
“The constitution places that responsibility in the General Assembly,” Berger said. “I do not see us going back to the way things were.”
Our state’s Constitution bestowed power in the legislature out of resentment of the concentration of power with colonial governors.
But these days the reverse seems to be true.
This column also appeared today on the Capitol Broadcasting Opinion page.