There’s a reason UNC’s board seems like an arm of the legislature

UNC Board of Governors members (from left) Tom Fetzer, Thomas Goolsby and David Powers are also lobbyists.
UNC Board of Governors members (from left) Tom Fetzer, Thomas Goolsby and David Powers are also lobbyists. New & Observer file photos

The board that oversees the state’s public university system has always been political. After all, its members are elected by the legislature.

Now, though, the UNC Board of Governors is viewed by some as an extension of the Republican-dominated legislature. The 28 voting members include five ex-legislators, three lobbyists and two former lobbyists, along with others who have business ties to lawmakers. Legislators routinely sit in on board meetings, a relatively new practice. Increasingly, board members reference the legislature’s wishes in policy debates.

The entanglements have led to questions about the board’s independence and its ability to make decisions in the best interest of the 225,000 students enrolled in the university system. Faculty leaders have voiced opposition about the board’s intervention into campus and academic matters in recent months.

The concerns have ratcheted up since the board launched plans in September to consider several significant changes, including lowering tuition, moving UNC system headquarters out of Chapel Hill and scrutinizing the size and purpose of UNC President Margaret Spellings’ staff. The charge appears to be led by new members who joined the Republican-dominated board in July.

Gabriel Lugo, a UNC-Wilmington professor who chairs the systemwide Faculty Assembly, said worries about political interference are nothing new. A nonpartisan group referenced the push and pull in a 1999 report on the history of higher education governance in North Carolina, when the Democrats ran the legislature.

But, Lugo added, “it seems to be more extreme than it has in the past. It is troublesome.”

Lugo raised 17 apparent violations of accreditation standards in a February letter to the university’s accrediting agency, which prompted the leader of that organization to warn the board in July against micromanaging and undue political influence.

This week, two prominent former board members from both sides of the political spectrum took the board to task in an article for Higher Ed Works, a North Carolina group that supports universities. They called on the board to “avoid distractions and pointless political gestures” and instead focus on the university’s core mission.

“Partisan politics from the legislature and Board of Governors should not get in the way of sound decisions and support for our universities,” wrote Hannah Gage, a Democrat and former chair who left the board in the summer, and Fred Eshelman, a Republican and UNC donor who left the board in 2014.

“Good governance is very different from micromanaging,” Gage and Eshelman wrote. “Good governance means advancing the focused strategic plan that was unanimously adopted by the UNC Board of Governors earlier this year — a plan that tackles big challenges in affordability, completion, and research excellence. It means empowering talented campus leaders and world-class faculty to do their best work, to create value for the citizens of North Carolina.”

Conflict of interest?

When the board meets next week, it will consider a new policy to implement a campus free speech bill passed this year by the legislature, including sanctions for those who disrupt speech. Some groups have warned that the sanctions could have the effect of chilling protests, thereby actually damaging free speech on campus. Such policies have popped up at other universities, generally pushed by Republicans interested in protecting conservative speakers on campus.

In September, the board approved a ban on litigation that prevented the UNC law school’s Center for Civil Rights from doing legal work for low-income and minority groups. The prohibition followed sharp criticism of Republican legislative leaders by Gene Nichol, the former law dean who founded the center with the late civil rights attorney Julius Chambers in 2001. Since the board’s vote, staff attorneys at the center have been notified that they’re out of a job.

This summer, the legislature proposed a $4 million cut to the UNC law school’s appropriation before instituting a smaller, $500,000 reduction.

Also in September, the board considered an item on a proposed joint operating company of UNC Health Care and Charlotte-based Carolinas HealthCare, which would create one of the largest nonprofit health care networks in the country. Because of real or perceived conflicts of interest, eight board members recused themselves from the matter, including three contract lobbyists who represent large health care and insurance companies – Tom Fetzer, David Powers and Thom Goolsby.

Goolsby is a Wilmington lawyer and former legislator who has repeatedly told his fellow board members that they should pay closer attention to what the legislature wants.

It’s good that members recused themselves on the health care vote if they had a potential conflict, said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause, the North Carolina chapter of a nonpartisan government accountability group. “But at the same time, when you have that large number and it being a function of the connections that these folks do have, it could be a concern.”

He said close ties to the legislature can be a double-edged sword.

“You obviously want connections to the folks who hold the purse strings,” Phillips said, “but at the same time, you don’t want to be influenced, where the agenda of the legislature is being thrusted on that board and it loses its independence.”

Powers, a board member and Raleigh lobbyist, sees the interaction with legislators as a positive.

During the board’s strategic planning committee’s work, two lawmakers sat in on the discussions. They were Rep. Ed Hanes, a Winston-Salem Democrat, and Sen. David Curtis, a Lincoln County Republican.

“They weren’t voting members of the committees or anything,” Powers said, “but so much of what we did might have required more funding, or at least increased requests from the legislature, we thought it made good sense.”

Powers said their presence could actually increase the board’s autonomy. “It kind of gives us their perspective while we’re going through our deliberations and processes and allows us to take in some of their thoughts and ideas without having them forced upon us,” he said.

“They’re going to have their say at some point in time in the process,” Powers added. “Why not do it in the early stages when it might be helpful to hear. We might be able to address some of their concerns, if they have any, instead of doing something that they’re not crazy about and they decide, ‘OK, we’re going to make you do this.’ 

A new attitude

The legislature has already taken a strong hand in setting policy for the university system, including the creation of the N.C. Promise plan, which will give in-state students a lower tuition option at three campuses – Elizabeth City State, UNC-Pembroke and Western Carolina.

Until recently, Powers was chair of the board’s public affairs committee, which focuses on legislation at the state and federal level. That panel used to be temporary; now it is an integral part of the board’s business. Another previous public affairs committee chair, board member Jim Holmes, is a Raleigh insurance executive whose company employs two legislators – Rep. John Bell, a Republican from Goldsboro, and Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican.

A few legislators have taken a long-term interest in the board’s work, becoming unofficial liaisons. They regularly attend the committee’s meetings.

Lugo, the faculty member, said it creates bad optics and could improperly influence policy. He raised the question of legislators’ attendance with the accrediting agency.

Gage, who chaired the board from 2008 to 2012, recalled a time years ago when the former House speaker, Jim Black, a Democrat, wanted to come address the board. “I remember everyone saying, ‘This is very awkward.’ 

The board began to spend more time with lawmakers in 2011, Gage said, when former Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, now a U.S. senator, invited members for conversations about issues important to him.

Now, the lines are increasingly blurred, Gage said. She calls it “partisan creep.”

But Powers sees a new attitude in Raleigh about investing in the universities. He said after years of cuts, the university has received good budgets from the legislature the last couple of years. While a small cut is planned to take effect in 2018-19, this year’s budget provided for enrollment growth, new money for data analytics systems and a revamped teaching fellows program.

Powers does not advocate the board being a rubber stamp, he said. “We need to be as independent as possible, but we also don’t need to put our heads in the sand and ignore what the legislature is talking about.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

Makeup of the UNC Board of Governors

The Board of Governors has 28 voting members — half elected by the House and half elected by the Senate. A student representative sits on the board, but does not have a vote.

Gender: 23 men, six women

Political affiliation: 22 Republicans, 6 unaffiliated, 1 Democrat

Race: 24 white, 4 African-American, 1 Native American