Education

Search for new UNC leader hitting snags

Jim Holmes, seen in a December 2014 meeting, abruptly resigned his post as chairman of the board’s public affairs committee, saying that he was unfairly accused of meddling in the search by the head of the search committee.
Jim Holmes, seen in a December 2014 meeting, abruptly resigned his post as chairman of the board’s public affairs committee, saying that he was unfairly accused of meddling in the search by the head of the search committee. cseward@newsobserver.com

The search for the next UNC system president has become bogged down with disagreements among UNC Board of Governors members and concerns about secrecy.

The board’s 11-member search committee met behind closed doors late Thursday to discuss its next steps. Last week, the committee interviewed about 10 candidates over a three-day period at meetings in Cary.

Board chairman John Fennebresque described the candidates’ quality as “superb,” but added that committee members hadn’t even started the hard part.

Apparently, they’ve hit the hard part.

Rumors have circulated that some candidates have dropped out, and board members not on the committee say they have been kept in the dark about progress of the search.

This week, a key member of the board, Jim Holmes, abruptly resigned his post as chairman of the board’s public affairs committee, saying that he was unfairly accused of meddling in the search by the head of the search committee.

As chairman of public affairs, Holmes had been a fixture at the state legislature during budget negotiations, representing the board and the university system’s spending priorities. The outcome had been good. University leaders said they were happy with the best budget in years, as well as $980 million for construction on the campuses as part of a $2 billion bond package that will go before voters next year.

But on Monday night, Holmes sent a testy email to the UNC board, according to documents obtained by The News & Observer. Holmes was not a member of the search committee but had been part of a screening committee that culled an early list of candidates.

In his email, Holmes wrote that Joan MacNeill, chairwoman of the search committee, had unfairly accused him of meddling in the search, writing that she “has asserted that I have been trying to build a coalition to influence the outcome of the presidential search. I would ask each of you to identify specifically my efforts to accomplish same.”

Holmes said he was resigning his committee chairmanship “due to this unsupported allegation (which she did not have the courtesy to call and discuss).”

The email concluded with “What a mature and responsible approach to concerns!”

Fennebresque wrote back, saying he was disappointed with Holmes’ resignation as committee chairman. But he thanked Holmes for his efforts to help “achieve a superior budget.”

MacNeill could not be reached Thursday. Holmes said Thursday he simply overreacted to some comments made by others.

“It was a whole lot to do about nothing,” he said.

After a busy time at the legislature, Holmes said he wanted to step down from the committee chairmanship to spend more time on his business and with his family. He will continue to serve on the board.

Meanwhile, other board members said they were frustrated with the lack of information about what’s happening with the search. According to several members of the 32-member governing board, there’s a movement brewing for a new board chairman.

Fennebresque has been criticized for his handling earlier this year of the forced retirement of UNC President Tom Ross, 65, who will step down in January.

The board voted to push Ross out, but gave him a contract and a raise for his final year on the job. But some complained that they were caught off guard by the move and didn’t know until the day before the vote. The action was largely orchestrated by Fennebresque.

Faculty have also asked to have more of a voice in the search to find a replacement for Ross.

On Sept. 11, Steve Leonard, chairman of the UNC system’s Faculty Assembly, wrote to MacNeill suggesting that finalists for the presidency meet with faculty and other stakeholders. Leonard wrote that “candidates may derive significant benefit and insight from consultation and counsel with other University partners in service to the people of North Carolina.”

When asked last week whether faculty would have that opportunity, Fennebresque said that idea was going “nowhere.”

MacNeill wrote Leonard and other professors five days later, thanking them for their idea and saying that she would raise it with candidates, “if appropriate,” but that strict confidentiality was vital.

“Regardless of the experiences of other institutions in different contexts, it is clear to the 2015 Presidential Search Committee that our commitment to keep candidates’ names confidential is enabling us to reach and develop an excellent pool of candidates for this position,” she wrote to the professors.

The next president will lead a public university system with 17 campuses and more than 220,000 students. It has long been considered a plum job in U.S. higher education.

Holmes said it’s only natural that there would be a lot of back-and-forth in picking the next leader.

“There are a lot of strong opinions about searches,” he said. “You know, healthy debate amongst the board is good. That’s what we’re certainly having right now.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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