Behind the routine elections at the UNC Board of Governors this week there was drama.
At the heart of the controversy: questions about Chairman Randy Ramsey’s official Board of Governors biography, which until recently said he earned a degree that he does not hold.
Ramsey, a Beaufort businessman whose company sells custom yachts and sport fishing boats, earned a diploma through a one-year Marine Diesel Mechanics program from Carteret Community College in 1981. But until last month, Ramsey’s UNC System biography page said he graduated from the college with a degree in Marine Propulsion, which suggests he had a two-year Associate’s degree.
The UNC biography was changed as board members who have butted heads with Ramsey threatened to make it an issue in the upcoming election. The change was made by UNC System staff according Associate Vice President for Media Relations Josh Ellis. Ramsey was not involved in the change, Ellis said.
The board chose to hold a special teleconference meeting Monday to elect officers — chair, vice-chair and secretary — instead of at the regular May 20 meeting. The move came suddenly and without explanation, leading some board members to speculate that Ramsey wanted to get out ahead of a controversy that could jeopardize his re-election.
Board member Robert Rucho was the only member to vote against re-electing Ramsey. Rucho said changing the election schedule “opens the Board of Governors to significant criticism and also places a cloud on Chairman Ramsey’s tenure, due to this election.”
For months, political rivals of Ramsey’s — including several current and former board members, as well as some former trustees of various UNC schools who have clashed with the Board of Governors — have circulated rumors about his educational background.
Several critics suggested it was inappropriate for Ramsey to serve as chair without at least an associate’s degree, while others simply said they wanted him to clarify the discrepancy on his bio.
No degree is required to serve on the UNC Board of Governors, whose members are appointed by the General Assembly. Over the years, a number of board members without degrees have served, but Ramsey is the first as chairman.
Last week The Charlotte Ledger business newsletter published a profile of Ramsey that prominently featured the questions about his education.
Ramsey did not respond to the Ledger’s questions about his online biography or why it changed. He also did not comment on it to Policy Watch, saying only that he appreciated the support of his fellow board members after his re-election.
“This past year, our board has dealt with many unexpected issues and I’m proud of the way we have remained focused on finding solutions that strengthen our great university system,” Ramsey said. “I look forward to continue serving with my fellow board members, who all share a common goal of doing what is best for our state and providing high-quality education for our future leaders.”
Some of his fellow board members dismissed the controversy as the sort of political backbiting that has been rampant on the board for years.
“For as much of a story as people have tried to make [of Ramsey’s education], it’s just not,” said board member Marty Kotis. “We were all aware of Randy’s education background. He has never hidden that at all. He has explained he cares a lot about the university system and cared a lot about NC State as well. He has a business background and he was not afforded the same opportunities, necessarily, that other people have been. And I think that perspective on a board is not a negative, it’s a positive out there.”
The people who are making the most noise about the issue are no longer part of the system and “basically have sour grapes,” Kotis said. These include Phil Lewis and Robert Moore, two East Carolina University trustees who were recently forced to resign their positions. The two left the board in February after an ethics scandal in which they were accused of trying to influence a student government election.
Moore and Lewis also contacted Policy Watch regarding the issue.
“I think there are a lot of people at ECU who are central figures in this disparagement effort,” Kotis said.
But some of Ramsey’s critics say his education or political rivalries aren’t the issue. They insist he lied about his credentials in his online biography and now should publicly address why it was changed.
T. Greg Doucette, a Durham lawyer who graduated from NC State and the North Carolina Central University School of Law, has been a frequent critic of the board throughout the Silent Sam controversy. Over the past few months he has commented on Twitter about Ramsey’s credentials; he did so again last week.
“Let me be clear on this,” Doucette said on Twitter. “I’m not a credentialist who thinks you’ve gotta have a bachelors’ to run the BOG. I *am* someone who thinks lying about what you actually have is automatically disqualifying. Academics who pad their CVs get torched.”
A rocky road for Ramsey’s first term
This week’ election is Ramsey’s first to a full term. But he has led the board through a series of controversies since becoming chairman in October. He was first elected when former chairman Harry Smith stepped down from the role, and later from the board entirely, after a series of conflicts and controversies — several related to ECU.
In October the board had to deal with the scandal surrounding Dan Gerlach, the former ECU interim chancellor who was caught on video drinking with students at a bar near campus and then stumbling to his car and driving away afterward.
The UNC System launched an investigation into the matter, but the board members ended up fighting among themselves when it was revealed board member Tom Fetzer initiated his own parallel investigation into the incident and hid it from the board.
Fetzer, it turns out, had engaged in extensive communications with various parties about ECU and its future, which some members said showed his ambition to become the school’s next chancellor. Fetzer denied the allegations. But soon he was at odds with Ramsey after Ramsey called his behavior inappropriate. Ramsey also said there should be consequences for any board member who acts outside the board’s established system.
Fetzer was not present for the teleconference meeting this week at which Ramsey was re-elected and did not vote on the matter.
Ramsey also led the board through the controversy surrounding its settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The deal, which gave the monument known as Silent Sam to the Confederate organization along with $2.5 million in a trust fund, was later invalidated by a Superior Court judge. But nearly $90,000 of UNC-Chapel Hill’s money was lost in the deal, as the group had already spent it on legal and administrative costs by the time the court scrapped the agreement.
Kotis, one of the few board members who would speak on the record about Ramsey’s re-election this week, said the fact that no one else was nominated for the leadership positions during this week’s meeting shows that the board has confidence in the officers it has.
“We have three candidates that have proven that they have the ability to do the duties of the job, are enthusiastic about taking on this thankless job and the criticism that comes with it, too,” he said.
[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information provided subsequent to publication by UNC Associate Vice President for Media Relations Josh Ellis that it was system staff who altered Randy Ramsey’s biography and that Ramsey played no part in the change.]