Politics & Government

UNC is changing the way it hires chancellors, after two problematic searches

UNC Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer, a former Raleigh mayor, questioned the background of the leading contender for chancellor of Western Carolina University.
UNC Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer, a former Raleigh mayor, questioned the background of the leading contender for chancellor of Western Carolina University. jwall@newsobserver.com

A new process for hiring UNC system chancellors will require confidentiality with no public disclosure of candidates, while toughening background checks and altering the level of involvement of the UNC Board of Governors.

The changes come after two recent problematic chancellor search processes, including one at Western Carolina University that fell apart this summer and ended with infighting on the UNC system board.

The policy changes passed unanimously Wednesday.

Under the policy, a Board of Governors member will no longer sit on each campus search committee. But the board will have more information on the candidates and more time to review them before the board votes to elect a new leader.

The way the process works now, campus search committees are appointed by campus boards of trustees and include representatives from the faculty, staff, student body, alumni and the community. The panel conducts the search, usually with the help of a professional consulting firm, and recommends three names to the UNC system president, Margaret Spellings. The president then nominates one finalist to the board for a vote.

Generally, the process would still have those elements, with some changes added, including:

While Board of Governors members are prevented from serving on a search committee, they can recommend people to serve in the role. Board of Governors members who live near the campus or have a special interest could be invited to give input during the process.

Search committees are encouraged to not only look at candidates with academic backgrounds, but to consider those from business, government, the military and nonprofits. The policy encourages the university to develop a pipeline of internal candidates and those from North Carolina.

No trustees or Board of Governors members can be considered for a chancellor’s job unless they resign their board seats.

Background investigations are required for any finalist, to verify educational credentials, work history, compensation and reference checks, criminal background and credit checks, and reviews of social media use.

Board of Governors members will have seven days to review materials about the recommended candidate; previously the nomination was reviewed by the board’s personnel and tenure committee within 48 hours of the election.

Confidentiality is required, with no public disclosure of candidates. Internal groups such as faculty, staff and student representatives can be brought in for interviews, but they will have to sign confidentiality agreements.

In recent years, campuses have opted for confidential searches, though in the past some have opened the process to introduce finalists for public scrutiny. That won’t be possible under the new policy.

Board members and others have argued that many good candidates won’t participate in a process unless their confidentiality is assured.

Some say closed searches backfire, hurting public accountability and transparency when it comes to hiring leaders of taxpayer-funded institutions.

“I understand and appreciate the need to winnow privately a long list of candidates and applicants, but I think that the two or three ‘finalists’ for the chancellorship of any UNC constituent institution should be vetted publicly in a process that includes meeting with faculty, students and other members of the university community,” Hugh Stevens, a Raleigh lawyer who has represented media organizations, said in an email.

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A member of the UNC Friends of the Library Board, Stevens said he participated in a number of meetings last year where candidates for UNC’s University Librarian were interviewed by various groups and individuals.

“I’m confident that the process resulted in the selection of the candidate who was best qualified to handle a demanding, multi-faceted position,” Stevens added.

David Green, chairman of the UNC system Faculty Assembly, said faculty, staff and students have to be involved.

“We want to make sure that the process is transparent, that we’re not suggesting confidentiality equals secrecy,” Green said Tuesday, adding, “It allows the incoming chancellor to be more successful if everyone is confident in the process.”

He said the policy’s more limited role by the Board of Governors is a good change.

“The reality is the more involvement of the members of the Board of Governors, the more suspicion that stakeholders have,” said Green, a law professor at N.C. Central University.

The policy changes were recommended after a tense situation in July over the Western Carolina search, in which the leading candidate withdrew after the board declined to vote on Spellings’ nomination.

One board member, Tom Fetzer of Wilmington, had questioned the WCU candidate’s credentials after a firm he approached uncovered a misrepresentation on the candidate’s resume. Other board members accused Fetzer of breaching confidentiality by sharing the candidate’s identity with an outside firm; Fetzer argued he was doing due diligence, trying to prevent the board from making a hiring mistake.

Fetzer also acknowledged that two former trustees at WCU had recommended him as an interim chancellor there when the former chancellor, David Belcher, took a leave of absence to fight cancer. Belcher died in June.

Another recent search, for East Carolina University’s Chancellor Cecil Staton, was marred when the search consultant returned its $110,000 fee, admitting that the process did not live up to the university’s expectations. Spellings has said the refund had to do with the firm’s communications, not the candidates themselves.

The new policy won’t apply to the two searches already under way at Western Carolina and Elizabeth City State University.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559; @janestancill