In their first public listening session Tuesday, members of the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina heard concerns from parents and faculty members from UNC-Wilmington, while laying out its mission.
At the meeting, held in Wilmington and live streamed online, the commission explained the appointment process for the UNC System Board of Governors and the trustees at the system’s 16 campuses. The commission is also examining how that governance can better reflect the state’s ethnic, racial, gender, regional, economic and political diversity.
Three of the commission’s fifteen members – Gary Locklear, Isaiah Green and Lou Bissette — attended the listening session in person.
“I think our system is incredibly strong,” said Bissette, a former chairman of the UNC Board of Governors currently serving on the UNC-Asheville Board of Trustees. “I think it’s the best system in the United States without question in my mind. What we’re doing here, what the governor asked us to do, is to take a look at the current governance system — get ideas from all the fifteen commission members, who are very astute in their own right, and get ideas from the public.”
That mission has not been without controversy. When Gov. Roy Cooper created the commission through executive order in November, state House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) immediately denounced it as a partisan exercise. Before the members of the commission had been named or a single meeting held, Moore said the General Assembly, which tightly controls the appointment processes for the board of governors and boards of trustees, was not interested in its suggestions.
That criticism from conservative quarters has continued, despite Cooper naming former UNC System Presidents Margaret Spellings and Tom Ross, a Republican and Democrat respectively, as co-chairs and several prominent current and former Republican lawmakers as members.
“Hopefully we bring everyone to the table”
Bissette, a lifelong Republican was vocal about his concerns over the Board of Governors’ partisanship during his tenure. In an essay for Higher Ed Works, he pointed out that Republicans and Democrats were roughly equally represented on the board when he began his 12 years of service there. But when Republicans gained control of both the state House and Senate, they purged the 24-member board of all Democrats.
After years of criticism over the board’s makeup, they added one Democrat – former State Sen. Joel Ford. Ford, an atypical Democrat, often butted heads with his own party during his six years in office and ultimately lost in a primary after coming under heavy criticism for often voting with Republicans and openly suggesting he might join the GOP.
On Tuesday Bissette said he hopes the commission’s suggestions — which they’ll deliver to the governor by June — will find open minds across party lines.
“We’re out to improve the governance system of the University of North Carolina System as an institution of higher education,” Bissette said. “We’re going to make a report to the governor. We don’t have any control over where it goes from there. But I do think, and I do hope, we’ll come up with some new ideas, some great ideas that might be acceptable to members of both parties. That’s why I’m on this commission because, as you know, I’m a Republican.”
Green, who previously served as the student member of the Board of Governors and as student body president at UNC-Asheville, said he believes the commission’s political diversity will be a strength.
“I look forward to these discussions and other discussions…on the board of governors and the state legislature about how we can make this system better,” Green said. “I think as we continue to work together to figure out solutions, I think that’s exactly why the governor wanted us to be such a bi-partisan process and making sure we can get solutions that hopefully will bring everyone to the table to make our system better.”
Locklear, a retired Superior Court Judge and former member of the UNC-Pembroke Board of Trustees, said education must rise above politics.
“It’s not about Governor Cooper,” Locklear said. “The governor’s office — regardless of what person, what party holds that office — it’s whether or not they ought to have some sway in selection of folks who serve in these positions.”
Beyond just political affiliation, Locklear said racial and ethnic diversity is important on governing boards.
“I’m a Lumbee Indian,” Locklear said. “I can’t just look forward. I have to recognize where I came from. And in doing that, I know that there have to be seats at the table for everyone. I can’t say it any simpler than that.”
During the public comment period, several people asked commission members to explain the basic function of the Board of Governors. They also wanted to know how board members, as well as individual campus trustees are selected.
The legislature appoints members to the Board of Governors. But each campus in the UNC System — with the exception of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics — also has a board of trustees consisting of one student and 12 appointees.
Eight of those appointees are appointed by the board of governors and four by the legislature. But it wasn’t always that way.
Traditionally, the governor appointed four members of each board of trustees. In 2016, when Republican Gov. Pat McCrory lost to Cooper, the GOP-dominated legislature moved quickly to strip the governor’s office of several powers before the Democrat could take office. Among them were those trustee appointments.
Asked why that happened, Bissette said he couldn’t say definitively, as he wasn’t in the legislature at the time.
“I probably got some ideas about that,” he said. “We live in a political country and we always have.”
But the governor’s place in any appointment process isn’t the primary issue, commission members said. Cooper has said if the commission recommends changes to his role in appointments, he would advise they happen after he leaves office.
In a larger sense, commission members said, those now governing the system don’t look much like North Carolina — either in terms of race and gender, but also of geography.
“I live up in the west,” said Bissette, who served two terms as mayor of Asheville. “One problem I have with it right now is the Board of Governors has one member west of Winston-Salem. We’ve got four institutions up there — UNC-Asheville, Western [Carolina University], Appalachian [State University] and the new [campus of the School for Science and Mathematics] up in Morganton. I’m a big one for geographic diversity. I think it’s so important, because each one of our institutions is so different.”
Nathan Grove, president of the UNC-Wilmington faculty, said the occupation of a person who is appointed to the Board of Governors is important. It is now stocked with former lawmakers, attorneys, financial professionals and professional political lobbyists.
“That’s one of the governance critiques I would give,” Grove said. “Not that it’s not important that you have people on the board who have a deep understanding of financial issues and business issues and political issues, because as you said, we live in a political country, right? But I think there’s been movement toward, especially on the board of governors, having people who really don’t understand what the day-to-day running of an institution looks like. So it’s really easy to then come up with your own idea of what’s going on.”
At UNC-Wilmington, Grove said, the only time faculty and students see members of the Board of Governors is when they visit for graduation ceremonies.
“But if you were actually having more contact and having those conversations with the faculty, with the students, with the staff, you would have a much better idea of what actually is happening,” Grove said.
Since the Board of Governors consists of political appointees, Grove said, there is very little public accountability for them. Only needing to please a single political party in the legislature can often lead to petty political squabbles and ventures into culture-war issues. That hurts the legitimacy of the board, he said.
“There are a lot of not productive conversations that happen …because they are trying to score political points,” Grove said. “Part of it is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”
The board should be concentrating on pressing issues, Grove said, rather than “getting involved in whatever shiny thing Florida and Texas are doing and therefore we have to do in North Carolina.”
Bissette said he believes appointees should have some demonstrable connection to, or active interest in education. Having served as a trustee before advancing to the Board of Governors often helps, he said.
“I’ve seen a few members who didn’t even know what the Board of Governors was before they were appointed,” Bissette said. “And that’s not good. Not many, but it’s happened.”
In some states, university system board members are elected, Bissette said, though nothing like that has yet been attempted in North Carolina. But new ideas are what the commission is looking for, he said.
The commission’s next public forum is scheduled for Feb. 28 in Asheville. More info on that meeting, including how to attend remotely, is available here.