State lawmakers apparently are poised to intervene in the search for the next UNC president, according to draft legislation.
With only a few days left in the current session, it’s unclear whether such a move will be attempted or executed. But several versions of legislation have been prepared, according to documents obtained by The News & Observer.
Some of the options have included: prescribing a more public process for presidential finalists; capping the future president’s salary; and requiring that the General Assembly have final approval.
That would represent unprecedented involvement by the legislature into the hiring of a UNC leader, which is now decided by the UNC Board of Governors in a vote following the recommendation of a board search committee. The possibility comes amid reports of dissension on the UNC board as an 11-member search committee interviews candidates to succeed President Tom Ross.
Some board members have complained that they’re in the dark about the search, and some have suggested that it’s time for board Chairman John Fennebresque to step down. Asked about that last week, Fennebresque said that information was from “bad sources.”
The draft legislation has not been filed and the documents do not list any sponsors.
The latest draft would require more transparency in the finalist stage. It would force the search committee to submit three names to the full board for consideration, with finalists’ names and credentials made public 10 days before a vote. Under this draft, the board would have to release all information gathered during a search monthly to the General Assembly – including minutes from closed session reviews.
The board would also be required to have a public meeting at which the finalists are discussed. That would be a significant change from the current process, in which the board discusses candidates’ skills and credentials secretly before an open session vote to elect a president.
Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, said in an email Saturday that he supported bringing more transparency to the search process. He said he considered running a provision in the Rules Committee last week, but didn’t after Fennebresque expressed opposition to Senate leader Phil Berger.
Apodaca said having the board publicly review three finalists is “a good common-sense approach.”
“I don’t think there’s a bigger university supporter in Raleigh than me and I’ve had to fight like hell to protect the university budget over the last five years,” he said. “There have been some aggressive legislative proposals to interject the legislature into running the university system. Some have been filed, some haven’t.”
An earlier drafted provision included language that the president’s appointment “shall be subject to confirmation by the General Assembly by joint resolution.”
This would be a huge departure for the university and its board, which have in the past tried to maintain independence even though the board’s members are elected by the legislature.
Stephen Leonard, chairman of the UNC system’s Faculty Assembly, said unusual legislative oversight would be a problem. “This would be highly unusual. It would compromise rigor and it would compromise candor in the review process,” he said. “It would make people more attentive to electoral concerns as opposed to the public interest.”
But Leonard applauded the transparency provision. “Anytime you’ve got a public institution that serves the public interest,” he said, “people who are responsible for and accountable for those institutions ought to be vetted in public.”
Other drafts would also cap a future president’s salary and benefits at $500,000 annually. Ross, who was asked to resign by the board, has a base salary of $600,000 plus other benefits.
The 32-member board is almost entirely Republican and has seen a nearly complete turnover in the past four years after the Republicans gained control of both the state House and Senate.
Apodaca said legislators had heard concerns about Fennebresque’s leadership style. He also said that board members’ complaints about secrecy in the search process “had reached a boiling point over the last few days.”
He said he has told Board of Governors candidates that finding Ross’ replacement would be the most important decision they’d make.
“I’ve let them know it isn’t going to be easy but they had to find someone that unites the legislature, university administrators and the faculty to strongly support one of our state’s real treasures,” he said in his email.