A state Senate provision that would, for the first time, provide independent staff for the UNC Board of Governors, has exposed differences among leaders of the public university system.
The budget bill includes a provision that would allow the hiring of up to three staff members who would report directly to the UNC system’s governing board. Those employees would not be under the direction of UNC President Margaret Spellings and her staff at the UNC General Administration.
Supporters of the idea argue that the board needs independent staff to ensure that it has adequate information to make decisions about the state’s universities. But opponents say the move would add unnecessary cost to the system, and worse, could foster an adversarial relationship between the president and the board.
A similar proposal was floated in 2014 by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a conservative think tank that has since been renamed the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. At the time, the center suggested that the board should have its own independent executive secretary.
Emails obtained by The News & Observer, as well as discussions by the board this week, reveal disagreement about the proposal.
On Tuesday, Sen. David Curtis wrote to the board explaining his reasons for pushing the provision.
“The UNC Board of Governors manages a $9 billion dollar entity,” wrote Curtis, a Republican who represents Lincoln, Iredell and Gaston counties. “It is only logical that the BOG should have their own staff in order to be expected to operate efficiently. In this spirit, I am humbly and respectfully asking you to support this provision in the budget.”
Several members do not like it, according to emails sent to Curtis. Board member Anna Nelson of Charlotte wrote that she would not support the provision.
“The hiring of an independent staff might imply or assume an adversarial position with University leadership,” wrote Nelson, who chairs the educational planning committee of the board. “We risk undermining the President and current staff by sending a message that we do not trust and respect their work.”
Nelson, who is the daughter of former UNC President C.D. Spangler, Jr., said the board had all the information “as can be realistically absorbed.”
The board’s outgoing vice chairman, Roger Aiken of Asheville, said he had had no issues with the president’s staff. “Whenever I have posed a question to UNC General Administration, I have received responses to my inquiries in addition to history and any options pertinent to the situation,” Aiken wrote to Curtis.
Curtis said his proposal was not aimed at Spellings. “Let me say upfront that this is not a criticism of the current UNC General Administration, President Spellings or anyone else alive today,” Curtis wrote. “I believe we all can agree that UNC is a great system but we can make it better.”
He added: “It can be argued that the one who controls the flow of information also controls the narrative.”
Spellings, out of town this week due to the passing of her mother, could not be reached for comment.
This week, two board members made vocal complaints about a lack of information about the system’s lobbying activities and a decision about the governance of the new lab schools at universities, which were mandated last year by the legislature. Several board members have repeatedly complained about gaps in information or late information from the General Administration staff.
Board member Bill Webb of Raleigh said Friday that General Administration staff has lobbied the legislature, “without consulting us.”
“I understand from Sen. Curtis that there’s been extensive lobbying against that provision,” Webb said, adding, “We ought to know when they are taking positions that uniquely affecting the board, and we have no idea.”
He also complained about not being informed about a change in who oversees the lab schools.
Thom Goolsby, a board member from Wilmington and former legislator, also raised concerns. As a lobbyist himself, Goolsby said he sees campus employees lobbying at the legislature “all the time.”
“I’m hoping that they are doing the board’s work, the trustees’ work under our policies, but I don’t know that there’s any clearinghouse for that information,” Goolsby said. “That is of some concern to me.”
The board’s chairman, Lou Bissette of Asheville, said it is unrealistic for the board to be aware of all details of the university’s lobbying efforts.
“I really don’t see anything wrong with the president being over there, advocating for what she thinks is best for the University of North Carolina, without our having to give her our approval.”
The dispute comes after a couple of years of internal turmoil on the governing board and at times, tense relations with the legislature.
Following the board’s 2015 firing of the former president, Tom Ross, some members and lawmakers complained about the search process that resulted in Spellings’ hiring last year. Legislative leaders also took the board to task for its lack of transparency about raises for chancellors in 2015.
The legislature acted this year to shrink the size of the board, with Republican supporters calling it a move toward greater efficiency.