New leadership elected to oversee the sometimes-contentious UNC governing board

New Chairman Harry Smith, new Vice Chairman Randy Ramsey and Pearl Burris-Floyd, who was re-elected as secretary of the UNC Board of Governors.
New Chairman Harry Smith, new Vice Chairman Randy Ramsey and Pearl Burris-Floyd, who was re-elected as secretary of the UNC Board of Governors.

New officers were elected Thursday to lead what has at times been a contentious and controversy-dogged UNC Board of Governors.

The new leaders are:

Chairman Harry Smith, a Greenville businessman.

Vice Chairman Randy Ramsey, of Beaufort, president of a boat building company.

Secretary Pearl Burris-Floyd, a former Republican legislator from Dallas, N.C.

All ran unopposed. Burris-Floyd was re-elected as secretary, and Ramsey and Smith will serve their first terms as officers.

Outgoing chairman Lou Bissett gave an emotional address to the board at the end of his nearly three-year term, praising President Margaret Spellings, who was hired two years ago, and reminding the board that the university system enjoys the support of North Carolina's people, who "will be carefully watching."

Bissette was a stabilizing influence on a board that has been bent on shaking up the status quo. He called the 28-member group "a new board for a new era," and recounted what he said was steady progress, including a strategic plan that focuses on efficiency and affordability, and educating and graduating more low-income and rural students.

"It's working," he said, "and it can really work for our university over the years."

Undergraduate tuition increases have been low or, this year, nonexistent, Bissette said, and the legislature has delivered better budgets to the university in the past couple of years.

"When I joined the Board of Governors, it was clear that the playbook of the past wasn't going to work anymore," said Bissette, a lawyer and former Asheville mayor. "The state needed a university system that was thinking smarter about how it can serve the state's future. The difficulty, of course, is how to achieve that change and meet our responsibilities to guide this university system while not going too far, micromanaging our leaders and becoming a management entity instead of a policy and oversight entity."

UNC System President Margaret Spellings and Board of Governors member Lou Bissette. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

The legislatively appointed board, almost entirely composed of Republicans, has been more focused on accountability in university spending while also substantially raising salaries of UNC chancellors and the president.

Overseeing policy for the nearly 230,000-student, 17-campus system, the board has also drawn protests after a series of moves, including shutting down three university centers that were identified with liberal people or issues and last year barring the UNC law school's Center for Civil Rights from engaging in legal advocacy — effectively ending its work on behalf of low-income and African American clients.

The actions prompted faculty, students and others to accuse the board of micromanaging and being motivated by politics.

At times, the internal relationships on the board have been marked more by turmoil than collaboration.

Last August, a majority of the board wrote a sharply-worded letter to Spellings and Bissette, criticizing their handling of issues surrounding a large protest planned around UNC-Chapel Hill's Silent Sam Confederate statue. It was a response to a letter signed by Spellings, Bissette, UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt and UNC-CH Trustee Chair Haywood Cochrane to Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, asking for resources to deal with the protest and requesting that Cooper ask the state historical commission to take up the issue of what to do with the statue.

"The letter exuded a weakness and hand wringing that does not accurately reflect the Board's opinion about how the potential of campus unrest should be treated," said the letter, signed by 15 board members, including Smith, Ramsey and Burris-Floyd.

Smith and the other officers did not attend a media briefing after the meeting. Their terms start July 1.

An East Carolina graduate and wealthy entrepreneur, Smith was nominated to the board by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, a Republican. He is currently vice chair and has served on a task force that implemented changes for financial stabilization of Elizabeth City State University. He said this week he had spent the majority of his time on the board working to help UNC's historically black universities build a sustainable future.

Recently, Smith was mentioned in a lawsuit by former N.C. Central University administrator Ben Durant, who claims he was wrongly fired after raising concerns about Smith and another board member, who Durant said tried to steer a lucrative housing deal to a company Smith has done business with in the past. Smith and the other board member, Darrell Allison, have denied the claims, and the firm in question was not chosen as a finalist by NCCU.

Media scrutiny also focused on Smith's communications with ECU officials in 2016 over acquisition of an apartment complex, prompting UNC's chief lawyer to ask for a conversation with Smith about the university's conflicts-of-interest policy. Smith has said the deal was all talk, a regrettable mistake, and that he was just trying to get ECU a good deal on additional student housing. The purchase never happened.

Spellings called Smith "extremely bright, very energetic, very well informed and comes from a place of great intentions."

She said she and Smith have "very open, honest and energetic conversations" about their respective roles. Smith is "an operator, a business-oriented person" with a lot of energy.

"He knows what he doesn't know, and I do think he has respect and deference for those of us who are in public life, and who work and manage and run the thing," Spellings said. "You hear him say that."

Last week in an interview, Smith said, "I just want to do some really good work."

He said he plans to say more about detailed goals around the university's cost containment, renovation, online education and collaboration with community colleges.

Last September, a divide in the board emerged when several members rolled out proposals to the surprise of their board colleagues. The plans included reducing tuition and fees, studying Spellings' staff needs and moving the UNC system staff out of Chapel Hill. Some of those ideas were studied but so far have not resulted in big changes.

Bissette acknowledged there was a lack of clear consensus about how involved board members should be. He has urged for an oversight role that does not intrude into management.

"We should not be involved in issues at the campus level," Bissette said. "There are a number of us who have that belief, and then there are others who think that in the past the board members have not been as actively engaged as they could be. It's a delicate balance, really, when you think about it. You want to be involved, you want to be engaged, but you don't want to get out of your lane and get into the president's lane."

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill
Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer