Tom Fetzer: I acted with good faith on chancellor search

UNC Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer, a former Raleigh mayor, vetted the leading contender for chancellor of Western Carolina University after noticing what he said was a misrepresentation on the candidate’s resume.
UNC Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer, a former Raleigh mayor, vetted the leading contender for chancellor of Western Carolina University after noticing what he said was a misrepresentation on the candidate’s resume. jwall@newsobserver.com

The recent media hysterics and political hyperbole over my good-faith efforts to strengthen the UNC system’s Western Carolina University chancellor search require a frank response.

I’ve been lambasted for upholding my duty as a member of the UNC Board of Governors to help ensure that we pick the best possible candidates to lead North Carolina’s public universities.

My mortal sin? I discovered that a leading candidate to take the reins at WCU appears to have misrepresented his academic credentials, a serious transgression of our standards. I asked a friend who runs a backgrounding firm to check out my suspicions, which he confirmed. I then had the temerity to share this revelation privately, not publicly, with fellow board members.

The alarmist overreaction of some of my board colleagues, the UNC administration, and their fawners in the press has exposed not only an unhealthy academic and political obsession with process at the expense of results, but also hypocrisy in some of our state’s news media.

As required by state law and the UNC Policy Manual, applicants for senior university jobs must sign an acknowledgment that “North Carolina law requires notice to every applicant for state employment that willfully providing false or misleading information shall be grounds for rejection of an application or later disciplinary action or criminal prosecution.”

Our Policy Manual further requires the board “to verify an applicant’s representation about credentials and other qualifications relative to employment.”

In the case of the WCU chancellor’s search, as is typical of such searches, the board was notified July 9 of President Margaret Spellings’ preferred candidate just three days before a scheduled board telephone conference call to approve her recommended choice. Two private search firms and the UNC administration’s own internal review had led to the recommendation.

This “process” does not ensure wise decisions or good outcomes, which is why we’ve had two recent disastrous chancellor searches. In one, at East Carolina University, the search firm returned its entire $110,000 fee.

Upon reviewing the WCU candidate’s 50-page curriculum vitae, using an obscure and highly sophisticated investigative tool called Google, it took me all of two minutes to confirm an apparent misrepresentation by the candidate on page 1 of the person’s resume.

I contacted an acquaintance, Peter Romary, general counsel at QVerity, a respected North Carolina research company, to evaluate my concerns. QVerity conducts background checks on job applicants for Fortune 500 and Forbes List companies, as well as the federal government. Romary is a graduate of the UNC School of Law.

Romary quickly confirmed that my concerns were justified — that the information on the candidate’s CV was at best misleading, and probably false. Remember, the rejection standard as defined by the UNC Policy manual is “false or misleading.” I asked Romary to issue me a written report of his analysis and findings.

On July 11, two days after I had received the candidate’s CV, and the day before the scheduled board vote, I sent an email discreetly and confidentially to only a few board members, including Chairman Harry Smith.

I included a note that said simply, “I will leave it to your discretion as to whether to send this to Margaret and other members of the Board of Governors.” The next day, Smith asked me to forward the email to the remaining BOG members, which I did.

Controversy quickly erupted, which some in the news media have exploited gleefully.

Some of my fellow board members have questioned why I sought the counsel of an outside firm. The answer is simple: The firms retained by the UNC System had failed to notice a glaring misrepresentation on page 1 of the candidate’s application. And I did not believe they were willing to or capable of determining the truth, which is our legal charge.

Some have implied ulterior motives on my part by suggesting that I wanted the WCU Chancellor job for myself. While it’s true that several BOG members recommended to President Spellings that I serve as interim chancellor after former Chancellor David Belcher stepped down for health reasons, as I had previously served on the WCU Board of Trustees, she ultimately chose to elevate Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar to the position, a decision I supported fully.

I did not apply for the WCU chancellor job and was never a candidate for it. Efforts to impugn my motives are disingenuous attempts to distract from important truths.

This bureaucratic brouhaha is chock full of ironies.

I did not provide Romary or QVerity with any information other than the candidate’s name, which they kept strictly confidential. My communication to fellow Board members likewise was confidential — until some of them blabbed.

The BOG members who accused me incorrectly of violating confidentiality were the same ones who spoke of it and other private matters in an open session of the board’s Personnel and Tenure Committee, generating news coverage that violated the privacy they claimed to cherish.

President Spellings has been quoted recently as saying, “Confidentiality is paramount in the search process.”

Respectfully, she’s wrong. What is paramount is fulfilling our statutory oversight responsibilities and seeking the truth — which, after all, is the point of education.

Equally important is hiring the best possible chancellors at each of our universities. Our flagships get most of the media attention, but our other universities play a crucial role in lifting up the next generations of North Carolinians. They and their students cannot afford, as former President George W. Bush has often warned, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

“Whatever difficulties we face,” President Bush said in one such speech just a few years ago in Texas, “they will not be addressed by weakening accountability.”

I agree. And, for the record, the candidate’s identity still has not been disclosed.

One final irony: Some of the same news media that have wrongly accused me of jeopardizing candidate confidentiality often make it their mission to disclose — and vet on their own — the finalists before a choice is made.

Why, less than three years ago, this very newspaper, quoting anonymous sources, published a front-page story outing Margaret Spellings as the leading candidate to become the UNC system’s next president.

If current or former board members — or North Carolina’s leading editorialists — reprimanded the press then for exposing such sensitive information, I must have missed it.

Tom Fetzer, former mayor of Raleigh, is a member of the UNC Board of Governors.
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