UNC board questioned on approval of chancellor raises in closed meeting

W. Louis Bissette, Vice Chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, speaks to the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations meeting at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh, NC on Nov. 18, 2015.
W. Louis Bissette, Vice Chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, speaks to the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations meeting at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh, NC on Nov. 18, 2015.

UNC Board of Governors Vice Chairman Lou Bissette told lawmakers Wednesday that it would have been better if the board had voted publicly on chancellors’ raises last month.

The board’s Oct. 30 closed-door vote has damaged the university and the board, Bissette said, after being questioned at the powerful Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations.

“It’s just not worth all this hassle,” Bissette said in an interview after his appearance before the commission. “We’re in a new age. Transparency is a theme.”

Board representatives were summoned to the legislative commission because of concern that the university system’s governing board had run afoul of the state’s Open Meetings Law on Oct. 30, when it approved substantial raises for 12 of 17 UNC system chancellors. Information about the raises was withheld from the public for three days after the meeting.

“I think we made an error there,” Bissette said of the failure to provide the information immediately.

The raises were sizable, ranging from 8 percent to 19 percent. The board’s debate, which occurred in a closed session that ran about two and a half hours, was contentious. This week, a one-paragraph summary of the meeting said the vote was 16-13 in favor of the raises. No roll call was taken, so there is no record of how individual members voted.

Bissette said the board had acted in April to raise the salary ranges for chancellors after a consultant concluded they were too low. The raises were a “one-time attempt” to bring salaries in line with peer institutions around the country.

The board delayed releasing the information on Oct. 30 so that UNC President Tom Ross could notify chancellors of their raises.

“Given the interest of the state,” Bissette said Wednesday, “I think probably the best thing to do is to have that vote in open session and release those salaries.”

The commission asked the board for a report after its December meeting, where board members will receive a tutorial on open meetings requirements under the law.

I think there’s been some lessons learned.

Rep. John Torbett, a Republican from Stanley

“I think there’s been some lessons learned,” said Rep. John Torbett, a Republican from Stanley.

Torbett said there can be confusion when people move from private sector boards to public bodies.

“You tend to come in with more of a private mentality and then you come into a government operation and they often conflict, which is good,” Torbett said.

Last week, the board released records from the Oct. 30 meeting to House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger, who had demanded “any and all” records, including a tape of the discussion.

Media representatives have objected to the closed-door vote and the delay before the chancellors’ salary figures were disclosed.

Legislature hands-on

The Open Meetings Law generally allows public bodies to discuss personnel matters behind closed doors but requires votes in open session. UNC’s attorney, Tom Shanahan, has explained the secret vote by saying the board was only authorizing raises that had not yet been implemented. Lawyers for media organizations have disagreed with Shanahan’s justification.

Lawmakers’ questioning of the UNC board Wednesday highlighted recent tension between the legislature and the university system governing board, whose 32 members are appointed by the legislature.

Last week, one board member, Joe Knott, said the demand for closed-session records was an unwarranted intrusion by politicians that threatened the university’s independence. Knott also charged that an unidentified lawmaker had pushed an unnamed candidate for the presidency of the university. That pressure, Knott said, was rebuffed by former UNC board Chairman John Fennebresque, who recently resigned from the board.

The legislature took steps to intervene in the process for the recent presidential search, which ended with the hiring last month of Margaret Spellings, former U.S. secretary of education.

A bill that imposed term limits on UNC board members also required that the presidential search committee put forth three finalists’ names to the full board for consideration. Supporters of the bipartisan bill had complained about the board’s lack of transparency.

Bissette said Wednesday that the UNC attorney had advised him that “there’s no provision in the Open Meetings Law that states that all votes of a public body must take place in open session.”

Being ‘more open’

But, he pledged, the board will lean toward openness in the future.

“I believe that the current Board of Governors, and our new president, recognize the importance of focusing our attention on the major policy and strategic issues facing the university and public higher education in general,” he said. “In that light, we are interested in looking carefully at our effectiveness as a working board, which includes encouraging more open discussion and voting wherever possible.”

The chancellors’ raises have drawn scrutiny and objection by faculty and others.

Three chancellors in the Triangle ended up with higher compensation. UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt received a raise of 9.6 percent – or $50,000 – bringing her base pay to $570,000. N.C. Central University Chancellor Debra Saunders-White got a $45,000 boost – almost 16 percent – bringing her annual pay to $330,000. Randy Woodson, chancellor of N.C. State University, received a 13 percent salary increase – or $70,000 – which will bring his base pay to $590,000. Woodson is the only chancellor with a contract. His four-year deal includes an annual stipend of $200,000 paid by private funds at NCSU, plus the possibility of performance bonuses.

Spellings will have a base salary of $775,000, which is $175,000 more than Ross’ salary. She will also be able to earn more money with deferred compensation and with annual bonuses.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill