Harry Smith, the new leader of the UNC Board of Governors, tried Friday to turn the page from politics to policy for a governing panel that has been known for internal discord and controversy.
He urged the board to come together and unite behind UNC President Margaret Spellings, who he called “a phenomenal” leader.
“Pettiness and politics we will not be remembered for,” Smith said in remarks after his first meeting. “But if we can get focused on some great policy areas that Margaret and I have robust discussions on, then we can enhance the system.”
Earlier, he told the board: “If Margaret has a position that this board does not support, it’s my hope we respect it. She brings a great experience, knowledge, and it’s my hope we recognize that. ... I would ask this board to put any history ... behind you, hard feelings and come together in a respectful manner. Take the fact, data and detail and make sure we get it right.”
Smith, whose term as chairman started this month, began his tenure amid a blowup among board members Thursday about the failed process to hire a new chancellor for Western Carolina University.
Earlier in July, the board met to consider Spellings’ nominee for the job, but the vote never happened. Several members accused board member Tom Fetzer of torpedoing the candidate when he had a private firm look into the candidate’s background after spotting what he said was a discrepancy on a resume. Fetzer defended his actions, saying they were appropriate, even necessary under state law, for the board to verify candidates’ credentials.
Fetzer, a Wilmington lobbyist and former Raleigh mayor, also said that two former Western Carolina trustees had asked him if they could write Spellings to recommend Fetzer as the interim chancellor last year when Chancellor David Belcher took medical leave. Belcher died last month of cancer.
Fetzer said he and Spellings talked about the possibility the same day but she said she had already made the decision to appoint the provost, Alison Morrison-Shetlar. “I thought that was a superb appointment, and interim chancellor Shetlar is doing a fine job,” he said.
North Carolinians and nontraditional candidates
Fetzer said he doesn’t understand why more internal candidates aren’t being put forth for chancellor positions.
“We say that we are finest public university system in the country. Why aren’t we graduating people that can run these institutions? We don’t get candidates from North Carolina. We don’t get nontraditional candidates. University of Oklahoma just hired a businessman to run its school. They were losing $30 million a year.”
Smith said there was no particular event that prompted him to ask the board to support the president. Spellings brushed aside questions about whether there was a rift between her and some members of the board.
“Calibrating the relationship between the president and the board is something that happens all the time. What are the expectations? What are theirs? What are mine?” she said. “And so that’s going to develop over time. We’ve all learned a few things the last couple of weeks, and I look forward to continuing the conversation.”
The Western Carolina search will go on, and in the meantime, the Board of Governors plans changes to the chancellor search process in the next couple of months. The UNC system attorney, Tom Shanahan, said Friday the search firm for the Western Carolina search had cost $90,000, plus expenses.
Besides the question of internal politics and chancellor searches, Smith was met with pressure from another front Friday. A group of UNC students, alumni, parents and community members appeared at a public comment session to ask for the removal of Silent Sam, the Confederate statue on the Chapel Hill campus.
‘UNC sits on its high horse’
The session, which preceded the regular board meeting, included powerful comments from a biracial student, Nicho Stevens, a senior business major who recounted a story about white students calling him and his friends the N-word recently on Franklin Street, about a half mile from Silent Sam.
“So I sit here and look at a mostly white Board of Governors that paid $390,000 to protect a Confederate statue, and to be honest, I’m disgusted,” Stevens said, referencing the amount UNC says it has spent on Silent Sam security in the last fiscal year.
“UNC sits on its high horse and pretends to care about its minority students.”
His mother, Nancy White of Chapel Hill, said her sons shouldn’t have to endure a hostile climate at “the university of the people, all people.” Its mission is at stake, she said. “Enhancing access to learning does not include a symbol of white supremacy that intimidates black students and actually hinders their learning.”
Silent Sam protesters have targeted Smith in social media this week for recent comments that characterized the demonstrations outside board meetings as small. In an interview with the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, Smith said, “we have 230,000 students and we have six protestors from time to time.”
On Friday, he apologized.
“That was a mistake by me,” he said. “I didn’t mean contextually to demean the movement, and I understand why they took it that way.”
After the comment session, Smith mingled with the protesters and said he heard their message. Outside the building, posters featured an image of Silent Sam with the phrase, “We need REAL heroes.”
‘We all have our views and opinions’
Smith made no promises but said he wanted to be more responsive to those who had spoken out about Silent Sam.
“I would expect that we will have a conversation at the board with the president and follow the process,” he said. “At the end of the day, what I want to make sure of is that we’re not ignoring it, so that we’re just not having public comment sessions and then we’re moving on. We all have our views and opinions. I do believe that if we follow a healthy process, then we’ll always get to the right decision.”
He said he didn’t have a personal opinion “at this point in time.” He said he is in listening and learning mode. “I don’t know what the exact path will be,” he said.
Spellings said she has “absolutely” heard the student protesters and discussed the issue with UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt this week. She said she and Folt talked about plans about safety in the upcoming academic year.
“We are very much aware that it’s not in our discretion to move or remove the statue, and I think our job is to listen and learn and to represent the views of the students we serve to those who can make a decision,” Spellings said.
A 2015 state law prevents historic monuments from being moved in most circumstances, unless the structures cause a hazard or are in danger of being damaged.
At the public comment period Friday, at least one speaker called the board racist.
Last year, 15 members of the board signed a letter penned by Fetzer that took Spellings, Folt and former Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette to task for a lack of communication to the board before they sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper about security plans for Silent Sam. Cooper is a Democrat; the board is overwhelmingly Republican.
Smith was among the 15 who signed Fetzer’s letter last August.
On Friday, he pointed out that he had spent a good amount of his time on the board working and advocating for the state’s historically black campuses. Smith said it had been difficult this week to be “the tip of the spear” of protesters, who emblazoned his picture on a Confederate flag on social media.
“But I’m going to always rise above that,” Smith said, “and try to do what we really think is right.”