The hiring of a new chancellor for Western Carolina University fell apart at the last minute after UNC board of governors member Tom Fetzer sent an email to fellow board members this month, questioning the leading candidate’s credentials.
Tense debate and heated accusations flew at a meeting of the board’s personnel and tenure committee Thursday, during a discussion about how to improve the process of finding and hiring chancellors for the state’s public universities.
Several members accused Fetzer, a Wilmington lobbyist and former Raleigh mayor, of breaching confidentiality by revealing the top contender’s name to a firm he sought out to look into the candidate’s background. Fetzer, who joined the meeting after it was underway, defended himself, saying there was “a misrepresentation of fact” on the candidate’s CV, or academic resume.
“I was trying to make sure that we did not make a bad decision,” Fetzer said Thursday.
Records obtained by The News & Observer show Fetzer emailed several board members on July 11, saying he had become concerned about whether the candidate lectured at a specific place. The email was redacted to remove the candidate’s name and the location in question.
“So I contacted a friend Peter Romary ... who is General Counsel at QVerity, a screening firm founded and staffed by former CIA personnel (who conduct screening for the government, Fortune 100 and Forbes List clients) and asked them to conduct a preliminary review,” Fetzer wrote. He shared the results of the review, and added, “It would appear that there is more scrutiny that this candidate should have been subjected to, especially as it pertains to veracity and suitability.”
Fetzer said in the email he would leave it up to the board’s new chairman, Harry Smith, to decide whether to share it with UNC President Margaret Spellings and the full board.
Board member and former Chairman Lou Bissette said Fetzer’s behavior was “way outside the realm” of a board member’s role. What happened, he said, wasn’t right.
“An individual member of our board took it upon himself to go out and locate some kind of firm to look into the particular candidate and a report was put together,” said Bissette, an Asheville lawyer. “It was sent to all of our board members approximately two hours before our board meeting. ...You know, we’re bound by confidentiality requirements ourselves. This was really an unauthorized disclosure of confidential search information to a third party.”
Board member Steve Long, a Raleigh lawyer, said the process was thwarted and suggested Fetzer may have violated board policy.
“In my mind, what you did was highly unusual, it disrespected the process and it was unprofessional,” Long said, adding that he thought that the detail about the candidate was probably not an error, but just needed clarification. “You don’t even know this candidate, and you ascribed to him the worst of intentions.”
Fetzer told Long his “obsequious” obsession with the process was less important than making sure the board made a good hire. He later said: “I’m not the one who made this public. Everything that I communicated was in confidential form until they talked about it in open session today.”
The board met July 12 with the purpose of voting to hire the next chancellor for Western Carolina to succeed the late David Belcher, who took a leave of absence last year and died of brain cancer in June.
A campus search committee had spent months reviewing 79 candidates and recommended three finalists to the WCU board of trustees, which then sent three names to Spellings, Bissette said.
Spellings was to bring her choice to the board for a final vote after the board of governors’ personnel and tenure committee reviewed it. But the vote never happened at the lengthy July 12 closed door session.
Board member Leo Daughtry, a former state legislator, said any concerns about the candidate should have been sent back to the board’s committee and Spellings, so it wouldn’t have been such an embarrassment.
Frank Grainger, a Cary businessman, recounted that the board’s new chairman, Smith, and new vice chairman, Randy Ramsey, said they couldn’t support the candidate at the July 12 meeting. Grainger’s comment prompted the UNC system attorney to ask board members not to disclose anything about that closed session.
A few days later, the unnamed candidate dropped out. The search was rebooted, and it’s unclear when Western Carolina will have a permanent chancellor in place. Alison Morrison-Shetlar, the provost, is serving as acting chancellor in the meantime.
Board member Joe Knott, a Raleigh lawyer, said the thing that offended him about the process was that the board of governors “sort of took over the process and I thought that was extremely disrespectful to our president, who is charged with hiring and supervising the chancellors.”
Several agreed that if new information came to light about the candidate, the July 12 meeting should have been postponed.
Fetzer, a former trustee at Western Carolina, pointed out that UNC policy states that North Carolina law requires that if applicants provide false information, it “shall be grounds for rejection of an application or later disciplinary action or criminal prosecution.” He said that any discovery of falsification prior to employment disqualifies an applicant, and that is up to the employer to determine. In this case, he said, the board is the ultimate employer.
“We are required by law to verify this stuff,” Fetzer said, “and I did not think that had been done sufficiently.”
Thursday’s contentious discussion occurred as the board considers making changes to the hiring process in the future. Historically, the UNC board of governors has been at arm’s length from campus searches, but a few years ago, the board acted to appoint one of its own members to act as a liaison to chancellor search panels.
The board and Spellings have also taken more proactive measures to vet candidates, with an extra layer of background checks in addition to search firms that work for the campus committees. Spellings said Thursday that the due diligence process “is much more extensive” and includes a review of candidates’ social media.
Smith, a Greenville businessman, said Thursday’s discussion was healthy. And, he chimed in that he didn’t think Board of Governors members should be involved in the search committees.
“I’ve seen a number of searches and I really think that our process overall is a good one, mainly because of its decentralized nature,” he said. “It just wouldn’t work for the Board of Governors to say to UNC Wilmington we’ll pick your chancellor. We can’t do that.”
Wendy Murphy, chair of the personnel and tenure committee, tried to referee the feisty exchange.
“There’s a lot of emotion around this topic and rightfully so,” Murphy said. “It’s a very important decision for our campuses. We’ve identified some areas to improve upon, not repeat, do differently. I think we should all wave the white flag.”