UNC board to hold emergency meeting to talk with president finalist

Margaret Spellings, president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, speaks at the US Chamber of Commerce June 24, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Margaret Spellings, president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, speaks at the US Chamber of Commerce June 24, 2015 in Washington, DC. AFP/Getty Images

The UNC Board of Governors has been called to an emergency meeting Friday to get an update on the UNC presidential search and to talk with leading candidate Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. education secretary in George W. Bush’s administration, according to three people with direct knowledge of the search.

The meeting has touched off a storm with leaders in the legislature, who wrote to board members Thursday, saying that the gathering could run afoul of new legislation that requires the search committee to bring forward three candidates to the full board for discussion. That bill passed the legislature late last month but has not been signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory.

“While the bill has not yet been signed by the Governor, calling an emergency meeting to discuss only one candidate could be viewed as the Board’s attempt to circumvent the overwhelming will of the elected people of the State of North Carolina prior to the bill becoming law,” said the letter, signed by Republican Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and Republican House Speaker Tim Moore. “Our concern is not about any candidate for the presidency but rather the process by which at least a few members of the Board have utilized that appears to cut against the fundamental notions of transparency and procedural due process.”

The lawmakers wrote that the search “should not be rushed or made without the thoughtful consideration of all members of the Board.”

Spellings is the only candidate scheduled to meet with the full board Friday.

The lawmakers’ letter caught the attention Thursday night of some board members. At least two called for the resignation of John Fennebresque, chairman of the Board of Governors and a member of the search committee.

“We are now in a situation where it does not matter who the candidate is at this point, given the complete breakdown of trust the board, the legislature and, I believe, the general public has in your leadership,” wrote Thom Goolsby, a board member and former legislator. “You are doing a grave disservice to the University and your candidate by moving forward tomorrow. No matter how qualified, anyone advanced under your chairmanship would be fruit from a poisonous tree.”

The search committee met Wednesday afternoon at SAS, the Cary software company where Friday’s meeting is scheduled. On Wednesday night, members of the Board of Governors – the governing board for the state’s 17-campus university system – received notice of an emergency meeting “to meet with and have a conversation with a promising candidate for the presidency and to receive a status report from the Search Committee,” according to an email sent by UNC attorney Tom Shanahan on behalf of Fennebresque.

“At its meeting today, the Search Committee concluded that it was important to have this meeting immediately because there is some risk of the candidate’s name becoming known,” said the email, which was obtained by The News & Observer. “The candidate is also available to meet with the Board in person at this time.”

The email further said that the candidate’s “confidential” resume would be sent to board members through secure channels. The email did not mention the existence of other candidates or whether other meetings would be scheduled. It said this meeting “is NOT being called to elect a president and there will be no votes taken.”

Spellings, 57, was U.S. Secretary of Education from 2005 to 2009 under Bush and is now president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. As education secretary, she was a major proponent of the No Child Left Behind law, aimed at holding schools accountable for student achievement and ushering a new era of standards and testing. In 2005, she launched the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which looked at ways to make colleges and universities more affordable and accountable. That group became known as the Spellings Commission and was co-chaired by former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat. Spellings was born in Michigan and raised in Texas, where she earned a degree in political science from the University of Houston.

If the board moved to hire Spellings, it would likely be seen as a high-profile hire – a nationally known Republican with broad contacts in the education and political worlds.

Board member David Powers wrote an email to the board Thursday that did not mention Spellings by name, but said the candidate “could be an excellent choice — indeed, maybe even that ‘game changer’ that we all dream of, but I do not believe they would have any chance of success if viewed as ‘the chairman’s choice.’”

Powers added that “it is not fair that she be judged in a light other than her many qualifications” and called on Fennebresque to resign before Friday’s meeting.

The next president will succeed Tom Ross, 65, who will step down in January at the board’s request. Fennebresque offered little reason in pushing Ross out, other than it was time for a change in leadership. The board was harshly criticized by faculty and others who suggested the move was purely political. Ross, a former judge and Davidson College president, is a Democrat; the UNC board is almost entirely Republican after the political turnover in the state legislature since 2010.

The UNC presidential search committee has worked for months to identify candidates, and the process has been bumpy – marked by board infighting and legislative interference. Some board members not on the search committee complained that they have been kept in the dark about the search.

At a key juncture, a bill emerged in the legislature that would limit UNC board members to three terms and would require that the full board be able to consider three candidates – apparently an effort to prevent the search committee from only bringing one finalist forward for a vote. The House passed an amendment that would have required public disclosure of candidates and public debate by the board; that amendment was later dropped after feverish lobbying by board members, who argued that confidentiality was crucial to finding top candidates.

In email responses regarding the emergency meeting, some members were concerned that there was insufficient notice for the event. Some were out of town and could not attend.

Others were baffled about meeting with only one candidate, according to emails obtained by The N&O. Board member Rodney Hood wrote: “Are there meeting dates set for the other 2 candidates? Perhaps the Board should visit with all 3 candidates on Friday. Otherwise, it seems odd to speak with just one.”

Board member Marty Kotis wrote that he was in Florida on business and asked if he could listen in on the phone. “Are there additional meetings that are scheduled with other candidates and do we know the dates and times of those meetings?” he wrote. “That would allow some of us to rearrange our schedules. And finally, what is the requirement for public notice on board meetings and the minimum time to call for one?”

Shanahan responded that public meetings laws require 48 hours’ notice, but Friday’s meeting was deemed an emergency because of the risk of the candidate’s name getting out. He also wrote that no additional meetings were scheduled and that the board discussion Friday would allow for further dates to be scheduled as needed.

Kotis then wrote to Fennebresque, saying that the emergency status of the meeting “feels contrived given that the candidate will be there to meet with us.” He added that the risk of a candidate’s name being known “seems like something we would generally expect could occur during a search.”

Board member Champ Mitchell said a board never meets more than a search committee’s top finalist. Still, he said, the board must comply with the wishes of the legislature to have three names brought forward, regardless of whether the bill has been signed into law.

“Our job in searching for a president is to find a leader who can take this university through a period of unavoidable transition as higher education changes throughout the country,” Mitchell said. “If we find the right leader, this university can emerge from that stronger and with a better reputation than ever. This university went through the Great Depression and all its challenges and emerged as the best university in the South and one of the best in the nation because we had Frank Porter Graham as a leader. That’s what we need to find again.”

And he added, “I wish everyone would put their egos aside and focus on serving this university and the people of this state.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

Letter from Thom Goolsby to John Fennebresque and UNC Board of Governors

Mr. Chairman:

I just received the letter from the President Pro Tem and the Speaker. It is hard for me to believe the situation has come to the point where our elected officials believe the will of the people of North Carolina is threatened by your leadership.

You have convened an “emergency meeting” of the board tomorrow where, under our bylaws, the only issue to be discussed is the selection of a new University President. While you have told us no vote will be taken on the new president, it has been pointed out by other board members that a simple majority of the board can vote to take up a name and select a new president once the meeting convenes.

Because of the way you have handled yourself and run this board, many of us would not be surprised by a motion to pick your single candidate of choice tomorrow and announce that person. It is sad it has come to this situation, but it is indicative of the lack of trust as a result of your actions as chairman and the secretive search process.

Among other things, in your short tenure you have blocked board members from accessing university staff for public information about the system, botched President Ross’ termination, hired an incredibly controversial search consultant and barred two-thirds of the board from participating in the hiring process.

Now, it appears you are asking us to circumvent the modest new transparency law requiring three names be presented to the full board for consideration. Why would you choose to go around this common sense measure? Have you already offered the candidate the job? Are we to be totally excluded from the process?

I believe it is only fair to inform your candidate that a majority of the board lacks confidence in your continued leadership and explain to her how your actions have alienated our legislature which has been supportive of the University. As one of three people on the board who has served in the legislature, I feel it is important for me to share my perspective, and, frankly, I am concerned about the impact of your actions on our relationship with the General Assembly.

We are now in a situation where it does not matter who the candidate is at this point, given the complete breakdown of trust the board, the legislature and, l believe, the general public has in your leadership. You are doing a grave disservice to the University and your candidate by moving forward tomorrow. No matter how qualified, anyone advanced under your chairmanship would be fruit from a poisonous tree.

I join the other board members who have privately urged you to resign. You should step aside before you do irreparable harm to the University System that we all love and in which the people of North Carolina have invested us with the responsibility of running.

After you step aside, the full board should be involved in an inclusive search process which can include your chosen candidate as well as many others who deserve consideration in a fair properly-handled process.

This is the only step forward. It is in the best interest of the University System, the students of each of our constituent institutions, and the people of North Carolina. We are all elected to the board with a responsibility to carry out our duties, even when we do not get our way. We are trusted to make the correct decisions all the time.

I hope the rest of the board will speak up if they share these concerns.

Thom Goolsby

Letter from David Powers to UNC Board of Governors

It is with great sadness that I must concur with our colleague Mr. Goolsby. While the candidate we are interviewing tomorrow seems to be outstanding in most every respect, I believe that her candidacy will be severely compromised by the support of our chairman. It is not fair that she be judged in a light other than her many qualifications, especially a light not if her own doing. I know that no member of the board would want to hurt her chances and I would think that the greater good of the University should be utmost in our leadership's thoughts.

The Board of Governors is a creation of the legislature and, while I agree that we must exercise our own best judgment, we are breaching our responsibility to the University by taking actions that we know can result in harm to the university that we all cherish. As I said earlier, I think that the currently discussed candidate could be excellent choice - indeed, maybe even that "game changer" that we all dream of, but I do not believe they would have any chance of success if viewed as “the chairman's choice.” Mr Chairman, it saddens me to say this, but it is my firm belief that the only way to be completely fair to this candidate and to act in the best interests of the University is for you to resign as Chairman before tomorrow's meeting. I do not come to this decision easily but, now that I see the potential ramifications of the current course of action, I am resolute in my conviction that this is the right action.

David Powers