Opinion

Democrats should push changes in UNC BOG

UNC President Margaret Spellings attends the UNC Board of Governors meeting where an emergency session was called where the board discussed her departure package during a closed session Oct. 26, 2018 in Chapel Hill.
UNC President Margaret Spellings attends the UNC Board of Governors meeting where an emergency session was called where the board discussed her departure package during a closed session Oct. 26, 2018 in Chapel Hill. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The UNC Board of Governors is a hot mess these days.

They’ve pushed out three respected university leaders: System President Margaret Spellings (a former education secretary under President George W. Bush), UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton. All of them got hefty payments on the way out that could have funded academics.

The biggest issue before the board is whether or not to reinstall the Silent Sam Confederate monument, which would require paying for round-the-clock security. And personal spats between board members routinely end up in the headlines. You’d think a group of mostly white Republican men could get along, but the board looks highly dysfunctional.

Last week though, the state legislators who appoint the board had a chance to hit the reset button. Twelve seats were up for appointments — an opportunity for some fresh faces and perhaps a bit more diversity.

Instead, lawmakers did the opposite. They reappointed 10 current board members in party-line votes, and added two white Republican businessmen to the remaining open seats. The House declined to reappoint an African-American Democrat, so the new board will become more white and male.

And for what appears to be the first time in the board’s history, there will be no Democrats leading the state’s university system. The bad press for university leadership is harming North Carolina’s ability to attract businesses, who want a stable system of higher education to supply talent, according to Rep. Robert Reives, D-Chatham. “They’re talking to us about workforce development, and that’s becoming code,” he said.

So why reappoint the same people? Well, when you’ve invited your personal friends, business associates and campaign donors to a party, it’s hard to ask them to leave when they misbehave.

One of the reappointed board members once hired House Speaker Tim Moore for legal work. According to WRAL, another leads a company that has employed two top House leaders in recent months. Others who were reappointed are wealthy Republican campaign donors. Most don’t appear to have a professional background in education. The one nominee the Senate didn’t select was Charlotte educational consultant Kaye McGarry, who was nominated by a Republican.

Some legislators seem almost embarrassed by their actions here. A typical appointment or confirmation process at the General Assembly features glowing speeches extolling the virtues of the nominee.

But this time, House Republicans did not make a single floor speech to praise their UNC board picks. Instead of holding an open election where any legislator could make nominations, the House held an up-or-down vote on a slate selected by leadership behind closed doors. Moore refused to speak with reporters after the vote.

To the Senate’s credit, at least it held the standard election, and Senate leader Phil Berger had the guts to describe the appointments as a “vote of confidence” in the current board. He told reporters that board chairman Harry Smith is doing “a good job,” and that he thinks “there’s a lot of diversity amongst Republicans” on the board.

While House Democrats rightfully complained that they were left out of the process, Senate Democrats did get a chance to make nominations. They didn’t file a single one, instead opting to throw stones from the sidelines and complain about long standing rules governing the balloting process.

Sure, the GOP would have rejected the Democratic picks, but they could have at least showed voters what a properly diverse UNC board might look like.

Democrats seem content to wait until they retake a legislative majority and then stock the UNC board full of their own political donors and personal friends — much as they did in past decades. But it’s on them to propose a different path: File legislation to restructure the UNC Board of Governors to ensure that it’s a diverse group with the expertise necessary to oversee our universities.

Other state boards feature appointments by the governor and other elected officials outside the legislature. And laws governing those boards require appointees from specific professional backgrounds. UNC’s board could, for example, include seats for professors, public school superintendents and business leaders.

While the current UNC board continues to draw negative attention, now is the time to propose alternatives. The future of higher education in North Carolina depends on it.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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