State Politics

Senate moves to downsize UNC Board of Governors

Roll is called as members of the UNC Board of Governors is read prior to the start of a meeting for the board to discuss House Bill 2 in Chapel Hill, N.C. Tuesday, May 10, 2016. The meeting was closed to the public and press after roll was called and the board went into executive session.
Roll is called as members of the UNC Board of Governors is read prior to the start of a meeting for the board to discuss House Bill 2 in Chapel Hill, N.C. Tuesday, May 10, 2016. The meeting was closed to the public and press after roll was called and the board went into executive session. cliddy@newsobserver.com

A bill to shrink the UNC Board of Governors from 32 to 24 members passed the state Senate on Thursday, despite objections by Democrats who warned about less diversity with a smaller board.

The bill passed 41 to 4, and appears headed for final passage next week. Sponsors of the bill say a smaller board would be more efficient and its members would be more engaged in policymaking.

An amendment by Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Raleigh Democrat, would have given the governor one-third of the board appointments, instead of full legislative control, and would have had an eight-year limit for members, while requiring members from both political parties. The amendment failed, 33-11.

“I believe it is critical that we establish an independent Board of Governors, separate and apart from the General Assembly, so the university can carry out its mission of serving the state by providing world-class teaching, research and service,” Chaudhuri said. “Under both Democrats and Republicans, our appointment process has become too political.”

Others wondered why there is a move to downsize the board in the first place. Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, said that neither the board nor UNC President Margaret Spellings had taken a position on the issue. “If it’s not broke, why are we trying to fix it?” McKissick asked. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The board now has six women and four African-American members, and no Hispanic or Asian members. Two non-voting members – the student representative and former chair – are also women. The vast majority of the board members are white, male Republicans.

While some senators argued that a smaller board would inevitably mean less gender and racial diversity – and less representation of the state’s five public historically black universities – others said the mission of board members is to represent the interests of all North Carolinians.

Sen. Bill Rabon, a Southport Republican, read from statutes: “‘Members shall be selected based upon their ability to further the educational mission of the university through their knowledge and understanding of the educational needs and desires of all the state’s citizens and their economic, geographic, political, racial, gender and ethnic diversity.’ Ladies and gentleman, that sums it up, and that is the challenge I believe this body should follow.”

That goal might be laudable, said Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, a Henrico Democrat, but the reality is the board needs people with diversity of experiences to be able to govern different types of universities, particularly historically black campuses. “We as members of this chamber are tasked with serving all North Carolinians, not just the North Carolinians that look like us,” said Smith-Ingram, who is African-American.

A rigid, quota-like system to achieve board diversity may not achieve the desired results, said Sen. Dan Bishop, a Charlotte Republican. He said what he’s seen at the university system is “a uniform lack of diversity of thought” that afflicts higher education across the country.

The Board of Governors makes policy and sets tuition for the state’s 17 public campuses that serve 220,000 students.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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