After months of protests at its meetings, the UNC Board of Governors will host regular sessions for public comment starting this week.
Public comment periods will be held following board meetings for about an hour. As many as 15 speakers will be allowed to speak to the board on any relevant university matter for up to three minutes. A panel of Board of Governors members – about five – will attend.
The first session will be held Friday at the UNC Center for School Leadership Development in Chapel Hill. Anyone who wants to speak must sign up about 20 minutes before the session.
The opportunity for public input was suggested by UNC President Margaret Spellings, who has faced opposition from groups of student protesters since she started in March. Spellings also launched an effort to live streamboard meetings.
“Hosting these sessions will be an ongoing part of our effort to operate more transparently,” Spellings said Monday during a conference call with reporters.
She said she raised the idea with Board Chairman Lou Bissette shortly after her arrival in North Carolina.
The session is for us to hear from the public, not to respond to demands or to engage in any sort of debate.
Lou Bissette, chairman of UNC Board of Governors
“We welcome and value public input, and we believe this is an important step to engaging with and being responsive to our various constituents,” Spellings said.
Last year, the board faced criticism for lack of transparency after approving substantial raises for chancellors in a lengthy closed-door session. Information on the salary increases was withheld from the public for three days after the action. Board leaders were summoned before a legislative committee in November because of concern that the board had run afoul of the state’s Open Meetings Law.
Bissette emphasized Monday that board members will attend the new sessions only to listen.
“The session is for us to hear from the public, not to respond to demands or to engage in any sort of debate,” he said, adding that the board’s rules of decorum will be in place during the events.
Also, he said the comments should be restricted to issues under the board’s control.
“For example, we aren’t there to listen to appeals regarding admissions decisions, petitions for grade changes or complaints about facility maintenance on a particular campus,” he said. “There are other channels in place at our institutions to handle those types of requests or petitions.”
In April, the board moved a meeting from Asheville to Chapel Hill because of a planned demonstration, and then adjourned the meeting temporarily because of disruption by protesters.
Each session will also be attended by one of the 17 campus chancellors.
Laura Wiley, a board member who will facilitate the sessions, said she would adhere strictly to the three-minute time limit, but written comments will also be accepted.
The process may be refined along the way, Bissette said, and the board wants to look for ways to include comments from people who can’t travel to Chapel Hill. He said the sessions would be a separate event so as not to interfere with board business during the meetings.
Board meetings have drawn protesters for months. Several protesters were arrested in January. In April, the board moved a meeting from Asheville to Chapel Hill because of a planned demonstration, and then adjourned the meeting temporarily because of disruption by protesters.
Bissette said he is “very optimistic” about the public input session.
“It would be an outlet for those people who have been protesting and want to come and have a reasoned comment for us,” he said. “But I think it’s also for people all over the state who might have some ideas or some things that they think would be important for the Board of Governors to know.”
If you go
What: UNC Board of Governors’ public comment session
When: Friday at 1 p.m. or 30 minutes after the board meeting adjourns, whichever is later
Where: Room 128, UNC Center for School Leadership Development, 140 Friday Center Drive, Chapel Hill