A bipartisan group of former UNC Board of Governors members have spoken out against the current board, calling its recent deliberations “clearly bad governance.”
In an unusual step, 10 former members signed an opinion published Wednesday on the Higher Education Works Foundation website, criticizing the board for being too driven by politics. Higher Education Works is a bipartisan group that advocates for higher education in North Carolina.
“Unfortunately, it appears our Board of Governors has become increasingly politicized, and some members are conflicted,” the piece said. “Politics has no place in the selection of members, and any conflicts of interest must be avoided. Boards must have a high level of independence and professionalism to be effective.”
Specifically, the opinion took the board to task for recent contentious meetings in discussions about the search for a new chancellor to lead Western Carolina University after the death of leader David Belcher.
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The process fell apart in July when the board met to consider a nominee put forth by UNC President Margaret Spellings. Instead, the vote never occurred. In an open committee meeting later, several board members accused their colleague, Tom Fetzer, of engaging a private firm to check the candidate’s background when he said he noticed a misrepresentation on the candidate’s resume. They decried his actions.
Fetzer, a Wilmington lobbyist and former Raleigh mayor, defended his move, saying it was his duty to verify the candidate’s information and prevent the board from making a mistake in a new hire.
The former board members said the process was flawed and poorly handled, citing Fetzer’s unilateral background check and the fact that the personnel and tenure committee chair, Wendy Murphy, allowed the recommendation by the committee to be overturned by the full board without further input from the committee or Spellings. That, they wrote, was an inappropriate action that “severely undermined” both.
“What we saw last month was not good governance,” the former members wrote. “Our state, our President, our faculty, our students, our entire University System deserve better. What we witnessed will negatively affect the quality of people willing to come to our Universities as Chancellors, faculty and staff.”
The 28-member board elected by the Legislature is almost entirely made up of Republican members, but the group has been marked by infighting and public spats.
Those who signed the critical opinion piece were: Paul Fulton, Ann Goodnight, Fred Eshelman, Derick Close, Brad Wilson, Jim Deal, Peaches Gunter Blank, Leroy Lail, Phil Phillips and Jim Babb. They included prominent business leaders and philanthropists from both political parties.
Fulton, a former UNC-Chapel Hill business dean and co-chair of Higher Education Works, said he had heard from several other former members who said they wished they had been approached about signing it. He said the goal was to support Spellings.
“I just feel like Margaret needs all the support she can get,” Fulton said. “She’s in a tough position. I think a lot of her, and I think she’s good for the university. I thought that that whole process was a bit unfair to her.”
Harry Smith, a Greenville businessman who became chairman of the Board of Governors last month, said Wednesday the former members’ criticism was unfair.
“I thought it was very unfortunate that they decided to take the attack route,” Smith said, adding, “I don’t think Paul Fulton and Higher Ed Works should chastise 28 members that are working hard, based on a handful that got into a tiff.”
He said he would encourage current board members to “take the high road” and not respond to the Higher Education Works piece.
Smith expressed support for Spellings at the most recent board meeting, urging members to get behind her agenda for higher education in the state. Last week, a report in the Austin American-Statesman said Spellings was a possible candidate for the University of Texas system chancellor’s job. Spellings spent most of her career in Texas and Washington, where she was U.S. education secretary under former President George W. Bush.
UNC system spokesman Josh Ellis said Spellings was never a candidate for the Texas position.
The Texas board ended up choosing someone with North Carolina ties — James B. Milliken, former chancellor of the City University of New York and former president of the University of Nebraska. Milliken is a former senior vice president of the UNC system under former President Molly Broad.
The Higher Education Works piece said that a large board such as UNC’s Board of Governors can only function well “when the Chief Executive is allowed to run the enterprise with strong support and appropriate input from the board. Micromanagement has no place in good governance.”
“It has become too political,” Fulton said Wednesday. “You used to not know the politics of the people on that board.”
Smith, the new chairman, acknowledged that the board has polarized, with factions emerging during the past couple of years. He said he’s interested in working on the system’s priorities, including campus repair and renovation, online education and better retention and graduation rates.
He sent an email to the board Wednesday, saying he disagreed with the former members’ assessment. “This current Board is focused on solving for the many challenges higher education is facing — and driving effective policy behind the President that addresses the needs of the entire UNC system with a focus on sustainability, affordability, and efficiency,” he wrote.
“We don’t want to spend a lot of time on pettiness and politics and attacking,” he added in an interview. “We want to stay focused on policy and address key and critical needs of the system.”