Following UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz’ resignation to become President of Michigan State University, Governor Roy Cooper reiterated the need for changes in the governance of the UNC System, highlighting recommendations put forward by the Governor’s Commission on Public University Governance earlier this year.
“The resignation of another chancellor from UNC-Chapel Hill adds to a long list of examples of the tremendous instability caused by the General Assembly’s takeover of university governance. UNC governing boards with extreme appointees controlled completely by legislative Republicans seem to prefer chaos and meddling over sound and stable leadership and these actions will ultimately hurt our state’s economy and reputation. The process of appointing university leaders must change and the answer starts with the recommendations of the Commission on Public University Governance,” said Governor Cooper.
“There’s no doubt that the lack of balance on UNC System governance boards is leading to instability in the leadership of our campuses,” said Commission Co-chair and former UNC System President Tom Ross. “The UNC System is among our state’s most valuable assets and we should implement thoughtful reforms that will allow it to thrive and continue to be an engine for our economy and point of pride for North Carolina’s reputation.”
In November 2022, Governor Cooper established the Governor’s Commission on Public University Governance following a spate of controversies and turnover at the UNC System and campuses leading to concerns that boards plagued by undue political influence and bureaucratic meddling hinder effective university governance.
In June 2023 the bipartisan Commission, led by former UNC System Presidents Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings, released recommendations for strengthening the public university governance system for generations to come. The Commission was created to advise the Office of the Governor and the public on the status of public higher education governance in North Carolina and on strategies to successfully position the state’s universities and colleges to meet the needs of future students.
The 15-member Commission dedicated many hours to listening, learning, and studying the governance structure of the public university system through public forums and ongoing conversation. In line with Commission duties prescribed by Executive Order 272, the Commission engaged subject matter experts on the status of public university governance, sought feedback from a diverse group of stakeholders, and conducted analysis of board diversity in the state.
As detailed in June, the Commission developed seven key recommendations for continued strength of the public university system as follows:
The UNC Board of Governors should create a new Center of Higher Education Governance to optimize the use of good governance principles in higher education throughout America and to assist the Board of Governors (BOG) and Boards of Trustees (BOTs) in enhancing existing governance practices in North Carolina. The Center could be located on the campus of one of the UNC System constituent institutions or within the UNC System Office and should be provided with the staffing needed to accomplish its goals and adequately serve existing and future members of UNC System governing bodies. The Commission further recommends that the Center have a bi-partisan advisory board appointed in part by the General Assembly and in part by the Governor.
The General Assembly should increase the size of the Board of Governors from the current 24 to from 32-36 members. The enlarged Board of Governors would enable additional opportunities to increase diversity pursuant to N.C General Statutes §116-7(a). To ensure geographic diversity, the Commission recommends that 16 members be selected at-large and that 16 members be selected equally from each of the eight North Carolina Prosperity Zones. In addition, the Commission recommends that the BOG include as non-voting ex-officio members the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and the President of the Community College System (or their designees) to enhance collaboration across the education continuum. Finally, the Commission recommends that the BOG include, in addition to the current student representative (who would be allowed to vote on all matters other than the election of the officers of the Board of Governors), two non-voting ex-officio members--the Chair of the Faculty Assembly and the Chair of the Staff Assembly.
The General Assembly should select all members of the Board of Governors who are not ex officio members in the following manner: The majority party in the House and in the Senate should select 12 members each. The largest minority party in the House and Senate should select 4 members each. This selection requirement will ensure a more bi-partisan Board of Governors with greater diversity of political thought and reduce the perception of political influence in university governance.
The General Assembly should increase the size of each of the university institutional Boards of Trustee to 15 members not including ex-officio members. The Commission recommends that the members of the Boards of Trustees be selected in the following manner: 7 members to be selected by the Board of Governors; 4 members to be selected by the General Assembly; and 4 members to be appointed by the Governor. Further, the Commission recommends that, in addition to the existing student member of each Board of Trustees, that two non-voting ex-officio members be added to each Board of Trustees--the campus Chair of the Faculty Senate and the campus Chair of the Staff Assembly. The Commission believes these changes would ensure more diversity of thought and would increase public confidence in the Boards of Trustees while reducing the perception of political influence in university governance. Any appointments allocated to the Governor should not take effect until after January 1, 2025.
The General Assembly should increase the length of the terms of members of the Board of Governors and Boards of Trustees from 4 years to 8 years. Members appointed to either the Board of Governors or a Board of Trustees would be limited to one full term on each board to which the individual is appointed. Governance works best when individuals who are capable, qualified, of high integrity, and focused on the university are free to use their skills and exercise their judgment to oversee the enterprise. With a governance system involving so many individuals, freedom to build consensus and act with principle is essential particularly given the scope and breadth of policy decisions to be understood and made. Longer board terms help build expertise and experience on the board to better serve students and the state. But a single eight-year term also allows more new members to join boards more frequently and add fresh thinking of value to the enterprise. Further, by removing the opportunity for reappointment, single terms may help provide immediate insulation from and lessen the perception of political influence over members by their appointing authority.
To enhance transparency and accountability of board members, all general business meetings of the Board of Governors and each Board of Trustees should be live streamed and recorded. All committee meetings and full board meetings should be publicly noticed and held in locations that can accommodate a reasonable number of members of the public. In addition, all members of the BOG and BOTs should be required to establish institutional email accounts and use those institutional accounts for all correspondence related to their role as a member of a governing board. Lastly, the process for appointment of new members of the BOG and/or any BOT and filling vacancies should be transparent and publicly disclosed in advance of the selection process.
Any individual who has been serving as a registered lobbyist or as a member of the General Assembly should have a required “cooling-off” period before serving on a governing board. Serving on a governing board as a registered lobbyist or recent member of the General Assembly creates the perception of a closeness to an appointing authority as well as potential conflicts of interest. A “cooling-off” period will reduce the risk of real or perceived conflicts of interests and will reduce the perception of political influence in university governance. The Commission recommends that the “cooling-off” period be one year after the individual’s term in the legislature ends or after the individual ceases to be a registered lobbyist.
Under these recommendations, the current and future legislative leadership would not lose a single appointment and any appointments to the Boards of Trustees allocated to the Governor would not go into effect until January 2025. All other recommendations would go into effect now.
Governor Cooper established the Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina by Executive Order 272 on November 1, 2022 to advise the Office of the Governor and the public on the status of public university governance in North Carolina and on strategies to successfully position the state’s universities to meet the needs of future students.
Tom Ross, President of the University of North Carolina (UNC) System from 2011 to 2016 and Margaret Spellings, President of the UNC System from 2016 to 2019, served as co-chairs of the bipartisan Commission. Other members of the committee were Lou Bissette Jr., Dr. Nicole Dobbins, Isaiah Green, Ann Goodnight, Dr. Clifford A. Jones Sr., Gary Locklear, Karen A. Popp, the Honorable Cressie Thigpen Jr., John Townsend III, Brad Wilson, Senator Gladys Robinson, Representative John Fraley and Representative John Bell.