RALEIGH — The new Republican majority in the legislature has begun putting its stamp on the board that leads the UNC system, making it more male and - no surprise - more conservative.
Among the eight board members the Senate picked Thursday, seven are men, including a Wilmington businessman who donated millions of dollars to help conservative political candidates last year, and a former Republican Department of Transportation secretary.
Still, the new appointments to the 32-member Board of Governors don't necessarily signal a radical upheaval: Two were reappointments of current members, and two more were former members.
And while the new group is more conservative, that doesn't mean its decision-making will become partisan, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said Thursday. Indeed, that would be a mistake, he said.
The eight new Senate picks all are strong supporters of higher education, Berger said.
"That they would happen to be Republicans or Democrats is a secondary thing," he said. "I think the members of the Senate wanted first and foremost to get people on the board that represented a cross section from around the state, and that didn't lean exclusively toward one campus or another."
Politics stays behind
The board sets policy for the 17-school, state-supported system. Members are appointed by the legislature and serve staggered four-year terms. The House is scheduled to vote on eight more new appointments next week, and the other 16 seats will be up for consideration in 2013.
The board traditionally has avoided partisan arguments, though that may have been easier in the past because members were appointed almost entirely by Democrat-controlled legislatures.
Some Republicans already were on the board, but there are very few split votes or contentious public arguments over policy decisions. Most of the time, board members heed the advice of the system president and its staff.
"People assume our votes break down along party lines, but more often than not other factors play into it," Chairwoman Hannah Gage said. "The process to get to our board is very political. Once you arrive, the service is less political than you might think."
On campuses, officials say they're more interested in whether board members support higher education.
"I couldn't say it's good or bad," Robert Winston, chairman of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, said of new board members' political leanings. "I think on both sides of the aisle there are people who understand the value of higher education. I personally don't feel it's a political issue."
A conservative board may operate differently at times. But UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp said he doesn't expect seismic changes in the way the university system is governed.
"I don't think the ideological shift will have the effect on policy that some think it will," he said.
On campuses, officials say they just hope new members support higher education.
Take, for example, Fred Eshelman of Wilmington, a Republican appointed to the board Thursday who is executive chairman and founder of Pharmaceutical Product Development Corp.
Of the eight senate picks, he is most likely to raise liberal hackles. CBS News last year described him as "one of the top individual funders attempting to influence the outcome of the midterm elections" by giving $3.38 million to a group that bankrolled negative ads on behalf of conservative U.S. Senate candidates. He also helped Raleigh businessman Art Pope lead another group, Real Jobs NC, that funneled money into state legislative races the GOP targeted.
Eshelman, though, has demonstrated vigorous support for higher education. The 1972 UNC-CH graduate has given more than $30 million to the pharmacy school at his alma mater; it now bears his name.
The changes to the board's makeup aren't just in political philosophy.
For three decades, the legislature set aside four seats for women, four for minorities, and four for appointees from the minority political party. But after facing a lawsuit seeking to overturn that quota system, the legislature abolished it in 2001. Since then, the legislature has followed the spirit of that practice, sprinkling the board with minorities, women, and members of the minority political party.
This year, the board is losing four African Americans and at least five women because they were not reappointed, had reached their term limits, or chose to give up their seats. The slate the Senate appointed Thursday includes seven white men and Ann Goodnight, a white woman currently on the board. There are only three women among the candidates from whom the House will choose another eight members. Few minorities appear to be among the House candidates.
The board has four other African Americans whose terms don't expire until 2013.
State Sen. Josh Stein of Raleigh, a Democrat who sits on the Education/Higher Education Committee, said he was disappointed at the lack of diversity among the senate picks.
"A board like the Board of Governors, that is serving the entire state by overseeing one of our most important institutions, should reflect the whole state," Stein said. "In my view, that means geographically, racially, by gender, political party and institution of higher learning, and it will be successful to the extent that it does."
No one should be surprised, though, that a different party in charge means changes in major appointments, said John Sanders, an emeritus professor with the UNC-CH School of Government.
"We're living in different times," he said. "The way the legislature acts today is different than two years ago or 20 years ago."
Gage says she doesn't expect board members all to think alike.
"We'll still have African Americans and women and Democrats and Republicans," said Gage, who in 2008 became the board's first female chairwoman. "Just not as many. We can make a lot about it, or pull it together and keep on moving. It's not going to be a monolithic group."
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