UNC-Chapel Hill trustee’s involvement in debate between candidates for student body president sparks controversy

UNC-Chapel Hill trustee’s involvement in debate between candidates for student body president sparks controversy

- in Higher Ed, Top Story
UNC Board of Trustees member Marty Kotis

The student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill is calling for the removal of a member of the university’s Board of Trustees, who he says interfered in an online debate between candidates for student body president earlier this month.

Student Body President Lamar Richards sent a complaint to the UNC System president and chair of the UNC Board of Governors’ University Governance Committee, alleging Trustee Marty Kotis attended an online debate, asked questions and offered “pointed, professionally inappropriate responses in the chat” regarding answers provided by the candidates.

In an interview with Policy Watch this week Kotis denied doing or saying anything inappropriate. There is no policy or directive preventing board members from attending student government debates or asking questions, he said.

However, Board of Trustee Chairman David Boliek recently advised the board to stay out of student government campaigns and elections.

Richards, who as student body president also serves as a member of the Board of Trustees, said Kotis’s presence and questions prevented candidates from debating their peers free of board influence.

“It was meant to be a debate among candidates, not a debate with the members of the Board of Trustees,” Richards said in an interview with Policy Watch Wednesday. “He doesn’t seem to realize that because of his role on the board and the questions he was asking about the board, it changed the tone of the debate and made many people uncomfortable. There is shared governance between the board, the student government and the faculty. It isn’t for board members, myself included, to involve ourselves in these campaigns or debates.”

Kotis doesn’t see it that way. He understands the need for board members to stay out of student government elections, he told Policy Watch. In fact, during his time as a member of the system’s Board of Governors he was the driving force in the resignation and censure of East Carolina University trustees who attempted to directly involve themselves in student government elections.

“That was a very different situation,” Kotis said. “In that case they were making promises to students on policy, they were offering to finance campaigns, they were saying incredibly inappropriate things to these students. They were clearly trying to influence the outcome of an election for their own reasons.”

By contrast, Kotis said, he attended the student debate, held online on Feb. 7, and asked what he considered respectful questions about an important issue: how student representatives would work effectively with the university’s governing board.

“If that makes them uncomfortable, maybe they shouldn’t be running for office,” Kotis said.

Debating the debate

Richards said he wasn’t sure how Kotis had the link to the online debate, which Richards said was sent only to students. But Kotis registered for the event under his own name and virtually raised his hand to ask the first question, about candidates’ views on working with the university’s governing board.

“That seems like a softball question to me,” Kotis said. “They’re going to have to be on the board and work with us and I think it would be interesting for them to say how they’ll do that.”

Later, near the end of the debate, Kotis took issue with candidate Sam Robinson’s characterization of the board of trustees as highly partisan and lacking political diversity.

Kotis submitted a question challenging that characterization and asking Robinson to elaborate, according to screen shots of the exchange reviewed by Policy Watch. The moderator said they did not believe there was time for the question, so Kotis posted it in the public chat for the online event.

“Question for Sam,” Kotis posted. “He mentioned a lack of political diversity in leadership on the BOT — given that the chair of the BOT and secretary are both Democrats and the vice chair is a Republican — all of whom were elected by the full board can he elaborate on that assertion?”

Lamar Richards, UNC-Chapel Hill Student Body president

In the complaint filed by Richards, the last line of Kotis’s question was reported as “can he elaborate on that incorrect assertion?”

That’s a misquote, Kotis said. His intention, he said, was not to enter into a debate about the veracity of Robinson’s answer but to ask him to back up an assertion.

“If I make an assertion about something, I try to be sure I can back it up,” Kotis said. “He answered by saying something about how the Republican majority of the General Assembly appoints the members of the BOG and the BOT and so they’re all Republican choices. But I thought it was a polite and respectful exchange. No one seemed to have any problem with it.”

If anyone had told him it was inappropriate for him to ask questions or to attend the debate, he would have accepted that, Kotis said. But it wasn’t until later, after Kotis said Richards received complaints from other students, that Richards broached those points.

Richards told Policy Watch he was uncomfortable in the moment but felt it was inappropriate to insert himself into the debate. When he received complaints from students, he said, he realized he needed to address them. He did so by first texting and then having a phone call with Kotis, he said.

The call didn’t get them any closer to resolving the dispute, Richards said. Kotis didn’t seem to understand the inherent power imbalance at play when a member of the Board of Trustees appears at a student debate to ask questions about how candidates will get along with trustees, he said.

There are preexisting tensions between Kotis and Richards going back to Richards’s push to force a Board of Trustees vote on an offer of tenure to acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. During that very public conflict, Kotis took issue with Richards having said that Black students shouldn’t come to UNC-Chapel Hill, which Richards said, continues to suffer from systemic racism it hasn’t done nearly enough to address.

During that controversy, Kotis said, Richards mischaracterized board positions, ascribed incorrect motives to members, and whipped students and alumni into an unnecessary frenzy when the debate over the issue could have been more simple and respectful.

“If we want to talk about respectful, you have to look at the things he has said and written and tweeted as Student Body President and a member of the board,” Kotis said. “I don’t feel like anything I’ve said compares.”

In an interview this week, Kotis also had criticisms for Teddy Vann, the student who ultimately won the presidential election.

“We don’t have to be friends, that’s fine,” Richards said of Kotis. “I represent the student body and I don’t apologize for that. I have always said and done what I needed to do in order to do that. But this isn’t about me and him; this is about whether it’s appropriate for a member of the board to insert themselves into student elections and student debate. It’s not. The chair of our board told us it’s not.”

Policy Watch has reached out to Boliek for comment on the complaint but has not yet heard back.

Kotis said he agrees Boliek warned board members at their January meeting to stay out of student government campaigns. But he said that was prompted by a representative for at least one candidate for student body president — Sage Staley — emailing board members to ask for their support for her candidacy. Boliek said it’s not the role of board members to involve themselves that way, Kotis said. But, he argued, asking questions at a debate doesn’t rise to the level of supporting or opposing a candidate.

A rising tension

The conflict over a student government election is symptomatic of a greater tension, apparent and increasing for years, between political appointees on the governing boards of the university system and its individual campuses and students, faculty and alumni.

It is more than a political tension between appointees who tend to lean more conservative, white and male than the campuses universities they represent and a more diverse and liberal student body and faculty. The conflict is, on one of its several levels, about the proper role of political appointees and the way they seek to involve themselves in various parts of the university.

Recent clashes over personnel issues, funding, tenure and the leadership and academic mission of the universities have made it clear the governing boards wish to be more involved in areas in which they have traditionally been more hands-off or worked in collaboration with other groups and stakeholders at the university level.

Mimi Chapman UNC-Chapel Hill’s faculty chairperson

Kotis attending and asking questions at a student debate is a “bizarre” example of this overreach, said Mimi Chapman, chair of the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“You would think that members of the board of trustees might have more pressing matters to attend to rather than making students uncomfortable in the midst of a student election,” Chapman said. “This is a student process. Faculty don’t involve themselves in this process. We work with whoever the students choose to elect in the same way that they don’t involve ourselves in our election. And no one consults either group on who should be on the Board of Trustees. These are separate groups that share governance and are allowed to choose their own representatives and should be left alone to do so.”

Chapman has herself been criticized by members of the Board of Trustees and Board of Governors as she pushes back on what she says is an obvious, increasing politicization of the universities.

Kotis has criticized Chapman for suggesting there was a plan by political appointees on the university’s governing boards to oust Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, which he said was never the case.

Boliek recently penned his own a strongly worded column, published in The News & Observer, in which he rebutted recent criticisms of the board and university leadership. UNC-Chapel Hill’s board is politically diverse, he said, and devoted to the school’s success.

“Instead of attacking devoted university funders and servants who hold different political views, it would be much more productive to suggest positive initiatives that make Carolina better, not tear it down,” Boliek wrote. “You can’t be for something and against it at the same time.”

The column elicited some criticism from students, faculty and even former UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp, who took to Twitter to share the column and his concerns about the suggestion that people can’t support UNC-Chapel Hill but also have strong criticisms.

“Hard to imagine something more chilling than the chair of a university board saying ‘you can’t be for something and against it at the same time,’” Thorp wrote. “[Too Long, Didn’t Read version]: No critical thinking allowed.”

Kotis, having recently transferred from a spot on the UNC System’s Board of Governors to an appointment on the Board of Trustees of his alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill, said students and faculty need to own up to their part in the conflict and ramped-up rhetoric.

“We’re raising a generation of snowflakes that can’t possibly deal with any sort  of question or criticism,” Kotis said. “‘Don’t dare challenge me on my opinions or ask about facts. That’s horrible. You’re just supposed to let me rant and never say anything if I’m wrong.’”

At the same time, Kotis said, students feel entitled to use whatever sort of rhetoric they feel necessary without explanation or apology.

Kotis pointed to Teddy Vann, the UNC-Chapel Hill student who ultimately won the election for student body president.

“Frankly, the student who was elected student body president — the last time I saw her she had a megaphone in her hand, yelling obscenities at the board,” Kotis said.

He was referring to a student protest at last June’s meeting of the Board of Trustees, at the height of the tenure controversy of Nikole Hannah-Jones. Vann, president of the Black Student Movement at UNC-Chapel Hill at the time, participated in a protest in which students were ultimately physically removed from the meeting when they refused to leave for a closed session. Several students alleged that at least one student was punched in the face by an officer as they were ejected.

Seeking to remove him as a trustee while encouraging that sort of protest at board meetings is hypocrisy, Kotis said.

“I’d love to have a debate and discussion about this, because this is a significant double standard,” Kotis said.

“A candidate that showed up for a Board of Trustees meeting shows up, yells obscenities, screams and disrupts a meeting,” Kotis said. “I attend a meeting where I have to submit my information and have to be invited to attend, I have to be called on, I sat there quietly until they called upon me, I didn’t blurt out anything. I didn’t have a megaphone. And somehow I should be removed from the board of trustees?”

As of Wednesday afternoon there had been no response from the UNC Board of Governors to Richards’ complaint against Kotis.

Kotis said he is preparing his own multi-page response in which he will contrast his own actions with that of student and faculty leaders.

“I’ve done nothing wrong,” Kotis said. “But if they want to have this conversation, let’s have it.”