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Political turmoil continues to plague UNC system leadership

Former UNC Board of Governors chairman Harry Smith, UNC system interim president Bill Roper, and Dan Gerlach, interim chancellor of ECU.

The already chaotic political environment of the UNC system and its Board of Governors has been further roiled by a new series of shock waves over the last two weeks that includes:

Hovering in and around these controversial developments, according to board members and sources close to system leadership: tensions over how the 17-campus university system will choose candidates for high-level leadership positions.

Resignations, scandal and political pressures

Last week, board of governors Chairman Harry Smith announced he was resigning [2] as the board’s leader, saying personal business pressures and an overwhelming political environment led to his decision.

“The politics come at you every day,” Smith said in an interview with Policy Watch. “The board politics, the system politics, the politics in Raleigh.”

The move surprised many who watched the sometimes combative Smith struggle with other board members, chancellors and former system president Margaret Spellings [5] as he ascended to the chairmanship. Just over a year after becoming the board’s leader, Smith has now given up the reins – citing the very politically charged environment some criticized him for helping to create.

Randy Ramsey the new UNC chair

Setting aside its customary 30-day waiting period before the election of a new chairman, the board met via conference call this week to elect vice chair Randy Ramsey the new chair and board member Wendy Murphy the new vice chair. The board held no public discussion and no other candidates came forward. Smith told Policy Watch that Ramsey was his choice as the board’s new leader.

Less than a day after Smith’s resignation, interim system president Bill Roper announced [3] he would serve in that position until June of 2020, but would not seek to become the next permanent president.

Roper has been seen by many as a steadying hand in system leadership after Spellings resigned abruptly [7] last year following public tensions with the board and state legislature.

Initially, Roper didn’t rule out seeking the permanent job. That seems to have changed in the aftermath of an August revelation [8] that Roper failed from 2011 to 2019 to disclose that he served on the board of DaVita Inc., a company that provides dialysis services, and three other companies that handled pharmacy benefits administration, while he served as the CEO of the UNC Health Care System. Roper made around $5 million from his positions on the corporate boards.

Though Roper said he recused himself from issues on those boards that might have caused a conflict of interest with his service at UNC and filed amended ethics forms, several members of the board of governors said the disclosure seriously hurt his chances of being considered for the system presidency.

Last week, he announced he would serve long enough for the board to choose the next system leader but wouldn’t seek the spot himself. Board members say they are still talking to stakeholders, a preliminary part of the search process.

The board of governors approved Dan Gerlach as interim chancellor at ECU after the ouster of Cecil Staton from the position [9], a controversy that divided the board and enveloped both Smith and Roper. Neither would publicly answer questions about why Staton was asked to resign as chancellor but members of the ECU community and at least one member of the system’s board of governors accused Smith [9] (an ECU alumnus and owner of a Greenville company) of pursuing a personal vendetta.

This week, Gerlach is embroiled in his own controversy after images and video surfaced that showed him in a bar near the ECU campus posing for photos, dancing and appearing to play drinking games with students. In some of the photos he is seen with his arm draped around or embracing young women.

Gerlach initially defended the behavior as consistent with his goal of being a social and approachable chancellor, though that stance softened after he was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. In an interview with Pirate Radio Live he called the incident “a mistake” and “not good judgement.”

“I should’ve just maybe said one beer and then you know that’s it,” Gerlach said.

But he also advanced a theory that the photos and video were taken, packaged and distributed to media in an effort to smear him after he announced he would seek the chancellor’s job permanently.

That theory has gained traction with a large segment of the ECU community. A petition supporting Gerlach and criticizing the media and UNC system for rushing to judgment [10] had more than 12,000 signatures as of Wednesday.

Who should lead?

Underlying much of the recent friction is the question of who should lead in the UNC system – from its president to chancellors at individual campuses – and how they should be chosen.

At the board of governors’ September meeting, board members and chancellors from across the state had a dialogue on that very issue.

While most chancellors agreed they’d like to see the new system president have a strong background in higher education, a number of board of governors members said they’d like to look beyond academia to the business world for the system’s next leader.

“A good way to look at it is, do the people who are running a hospital or a hospital system need to have experience doing surgery?” Smith said. “I think if you can show that you can run a large business, a complicated business with all the ins-and-outs, that is probably most important to what we’re looking for in a president.”

N.C. A&T Chancellor Harold Martin forcefully made a point echoed by several other chancellors: whoever the next system leader is, they should be free of politics and allowed to lead and work with chancellors.

“My observation — and I think I speak for our chancellors around the table — is the president seemingly over the last few years of tenure, has had the appearance of protecting the universities from the board around matters that were in our minds relevant, quality, competitive conversations we should be having,” Martin said.

That led chancellors to feel they had to defend their universities and the roles they play, Martin said — not a position in which most leaders want to find themselves.

N.C. State University President Randy Woodson agreed.

“We need a leader who is embraced by this board and empowered by this board to lead the system,” Woodson said.

Over the last few years the political makeup and connections of the board – and its willingness to insert itself at the campus level in politically volatile decisions – have concerned chancellors, board members and state lawmakers.

Five members of the 24-member board are former Republican legislators. Five are current or former lobbyists. Five members are politically unaffiliated and the rest of the board is Republican. Not a single Democrat sits on the current board.

That political reality has given rise to persistent rumors that current legislators and board members themselves will seek the increasing number of open chancellorships – and even the presidency. Four campuses currently have interim chancellors: ECU, Fayetteville State, UNC Chapel Hill and the UNC School of the Arts.

Those rumors were given fuel last summer when the search process for the chancellor at Western Carolina University was scrapped after a board of governors member gave confidential candidate information to an outside search firm. [11] The search process had already cost $90,000.

Board member Tom Fetzer

Board member Tom Fetzer – an influential lobbyist from Wilmington, former mayor of Raleigh and past chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party – stepped outside the normal search process in leaking the information that led the prime candidate for the position to withdraw. He asserted the candidate hadn’t been completely forthcoming in his application – something refuted by other board members and system leaders. It was later revealed Fetzer had spoken to system leadership about becoming interim chancellor at Western Carolina himself, but was told they had already chosen someone else.

The controversy led to fierce arguments on the board and an overhaul of the search process [13]. Under the new policy [14], no board of governors member may apply for a position as chancellor of a UNC school without first resigning their position on the board. Members of the board of governors will also no longer serve on search committees, though they can recommend committee members.

Last month, Fetzer denied he is pursuing any of the currently open leadership positions.

“Lord no,” he told Policy Watch, saying he wouldn’t want to take his family through the rough, social-media dominated process of either running for office or pursuing one of the university leadership spots.

Rumors persist about House Speaker Tim Moore

Speaker Tim Moore

Rumors also persist that North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore is interested in the UNC system presidency.

Moore did not respond to questions and calls for comment from Policy Watch on whether he will be a candidate.

In August, Moore told WRAL reporter Travis Fain [16] he “hasn’t put in, isn’t angling for it, hasn’t asked decision makers for” the job.

Three board members who asked not to be identified out of concerns about discussing closed-session conversations of the board, told Policy Watch that Moore would be unlikely to have enough support on the board of governors to gain the presidency. The board has become increasingly sensitive to accusations of self-dealing, they said, as reflected in the new chancellor search policy.

Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake), a member of the House’s standing committee on universities, said he has heard the rumors about Moore and the UNC system presidency.

“I can’t think of anything this board of governors could do that would signal their lack of seriousness about this university system more,” Martin said.

One of the most powerful Republican politicians in the state being elected president of the university system by a Republican dominated board of political appointees during one of the state’s most politically divided periods would be disastrous, Martin said.

“There is no viable argument that we need a politician in that position.”

“There is no viable argument that we need a politician in that position,” Martin said. “You need someone who is astute politically and either has or can cultivate credibility across the political spectrum. You need someone who certainly has an understanding of academics but also demonstrated academic record. And you need someone of integrity and someone who respects that while it is a unified university system, there are 17 individual campuses and there are rules and processes in place to foster their autonomy.”

“Tim Moore is utterly lacking in all of those qualities,” Martin said.

Rep. Grier Martin

The number of former lawmakers and current lobbyists on the board is enough of a problem for both practical impartiality and perception without the leader of the Republican majority in the House being considered for such a prominent position, Martin said.

“I’ve introduced legislation to prevent lobbyists from being appointed to the board,” Martin said. “I’ll be introducing it again, this time with a cooling-off period between when someone can serve in the General Assembly and join the board. I think that ought to be there. What we have now is just too political.”

Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Caswell and Orange) agreed.

“There’s a long list of things that Republicans have screwed up in North Carolina since 2010,” Meyer said in an interview with Policy Watch last week. “But if you had to rank the top three, I’m pretty sure that UNC governance – not just for the university, but for the whole system – would be among the top three biggest things that they’ve screwed up.”

The legislature appoints the members of the board of governors, Meyer said, and so has to take responsibility for the current state of the board and the system.

“All the concerns we have about everything from ‘Silent Sam’ to the turnover of so many chancellors in the system should all be laid at the foot of the board that was appointed by this legislature.”

The university system has always been the key piece to putting together education and the state’s economy, Meyer said. It’s therefore too important to be embroiled in political controversies and instability.

“If we don’t have a strong university system you’re not likely to prosper,” Meyer said. “This type of turmoil is bad for everybody in North Carolina.

AGB President Henry Stoever

Henry Stoever is president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges [19]. The group, whose mission is “to strengthen, protect and advance this country’s unique form of citizen trusteeship,” has more than 1,300 member boards representing nearly 2,000 institutions.

Stoever said searches for university system leaders and chancellors do increasingly include candidates who aren’t strictly from the world of higher education. Candidates from business and military backgrounds are more common now, he said. A candidate for university system president whose background and qualifications are primarily as a politician wouldn’t be unheard of, Stoever said, but institutions need to think carefully when going a non-traditional route.

“Every organization or institution needs to have a strategy, what they are looking to accomplish,” Stoever said. “The profile and the skill sets that they seek to lead the institution need to align with that strategy. That is the most important part of the search.”

When considering someone politically well connected or even a powerful politician as a candidate, Stoever said, the institutions should carefully weigh the consequences.

“They need to be sure they’re acting independently,” Stoever said. “And they need to be aware of anticipated and potentially unanticipated consequences of making a decision, the short term and potential long-term reputation risk to the institution or system.”

The board also needs to be sure they’re thinking about all the stakeholders, Stoever said — students, faculty, staff and the community.

“They need that input,” Stoever said. “I don’t believe any board should act in a vacuum.”