UNC board, as it gets smaller, likely to see significant turnover

Members of the UNC Board of Governors gather at a 2016 meeting. The House is considering legislation to downsize the board from 32 to 24 members.
Members of the UNC Board of Governors gather at a 2016 meeting. The House is considering legislation to downsize the board from 32 to 24 members. News & Observer file photo

The race for seats on the UNC Board of Governors has always been brisk, and now that the legislature has acted to reduce the size of the board, the competition appears to have ratcheted up.

On Monday night, after an hourlong debate about diversity on the board, the state Senate passed a bill to decrease the board’s membership from 32 to 24 by 2019. The bill now has gone to Gov. Roy Cooper for his signature.

If the bill becomes law, the House and Senate will soon take up nominations for six seats each in the election, instead of the typical eight.

Already, there appears to be a higher-than-expected turnover on the sought-after board. Several members have been told not to expect to be re-elected. Other members have already said they hadn’t planned to run again.

Several high-profile members with significant higher education board experience said they’ve been told they’re off, including Vice Chairman Roger Aiken, an investment banker from Alexander, and Joan MacNeill, a retired entrepreneur from Asheville, who led the search committee that brought Margaret Spellings to be UNC system president.

Those not running again include longtime member Craig Souza, a Raleigh executive who has reached his term limit, and Champ Mitchell, a retired attorney and CEO from New Bern, who has had health concerns. And there’s an open seat from a resignation late last year.

It all adds up to a scenario of big turnover on the governing board that makes policy and sets tuition for the state’s 17 public university campuses.

It’s unusual for a number of members not to be re-elected, especially when there hasn’t been a shift in the political party in power in the legislature. Republicans have held the majority in both houses since 2010, and with that, the university’s governing board became almost all Republican.

“I was really bitterly disappointed to get the news,” said Aiken, who said he spoke with House Speaker Tim Moore this week. “I enjoy it. I think it’s an honor. I’m kind of old fashioned — I think it’s public service.”

Aiken said he wasn’t given a reason why he wouldn’t be back, other than the Republican caucus had other people in mind. He said among board members, “there’s a lot of dismay and a lot of confusion right now.”

Several members said they’d heard rumors that a few former legislators and high-profile Republican leaders would be in line for seats. At least one of those mentioned, former Rep. Leo Daughtry, a Smithfield Republican, said he’d like to serve.

“I think the university system is a great asset and it’s worth protecting,” Daughtry said. “I’m certainly interested.”

Faculty questions

The shakeup on the board comes at a time when faculty have raised questions about what they say is improper legislative interference in the board’s policymaking. The systemwide Faculty Assembly recently sent a memo to the major accrediting organization over the UNC system, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. The memo cited 17 actions that faculty members say appear to run afoul of the commission’s accreditation standards, noting legislators’ active participation at UNC board meetings, interference in the presidential search process and the passage of laws that encroach on board authority for tuition, admissions and policy.

There are already several former lawmakers on the board — Pearl Burris-Floyd, Laura Wiley and Thom Goolsby, all Republicans.

Daughtry said he didn’t see a problem with former legislators serving. “I don’t think it makes any difference,” he said, adding that it could help the university’s budget prospects. “You could be a good lobbyist because you know the legislature.”

They seem to be moving in the direction of having people that will march to their drum, so to speak.

Joan MacNeill, member of UNC Board of Governors who said she has been told she will be not reappointed

This week, former board chairwoman Hannah Gage of Wilmington wrote an opinion piece for The News & Observer calling attention to a board that she said resembled “a 1950s men’s club.” She wrote that there had been “a systematic partisan purge on the board,” and that one faction holds the belief that the board is an extension of the legislature. Gage is one of two Democrats on the board now.

The General Assembly has taken a more active role in enacting big changes for the UNC system, including establishing a low-cost tuition plan for three campuses, setting up an environmental policy think tank at UNC-Chapel Hill, creating lab schools for universities and starting a western branch of the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics.

‘Their drum’

MacNeill, who previously served 16 years on the Western Carolina University board, said the legislature has wanted a different relationship with the system board than in the past. “They seem to be moving in the direction of having people that will march to their drum, so to speak,” she said.

She said it’s a delicate balance. “We have to work closely with the legislature,” she said. “They write a big check. But the purpose of the board also is to give that buffer between the two and for our mission to be more focused on what’s best for the university system and the students.”

Aiken said he thought the board had done a good job listening to legislative concerns and that it should be receptive to lawmakers’ ideas. But he added, “I think the Board of Governors has to be able to operate with a certain amount of independence.” Too much influence from Raleigh, he said, “could have a chilling effect on future boards – I think you’re looking over your shoulder all the time and you shouldn’t have to.”

Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville, said there had been good working relationships between the state legislature and the UNC Board of Governors.

Mitchell said he had noticed a greater degree of conflict between the legislature and the board in recent times. “It’s been an unusual degree of tension,” he said, “and we need to fix that.”

Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville, said there had been good working relationships. He said Senate leader Phil Berger had traveled last week to Elizabeth City State University with several legislators, meeting with Spellings and two board members who have been actively involved in a plan to boost the struggling campus. Those are the kind of members the university needs, he said.

Other lawmakers were concerned about what they said is a lack of racial, ethnic, gender and geographic diversity on the board. The board has six women and four African Americans.

Sen. Paul Lowe, a Democrat from Winston-Salem, conjured an old saying during Monday’s debate.

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” he said.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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