New UNC system board proposes surprise, radical changes

UNC System President Margaret Spellings, left, and UNC Board of Governors Chairman Louis Bissette, listen to board member Tom Fetzer propose a resolution to reduce tuition and fees. during a meeting held Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017 in Chapel Hill.
UNC System President Margaret Spellings, left, and UNC Board of Governors Chairman Louis Bissette, listen to board member Tom Fetzer propose a resolution to reduce tuition and fees. during a meeting held Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017 in Chapel Hill.

In a stunning and contentious session, a faction of the UNC Board of Governors moved Thursday for substantive changes in the university system, including lowering tuition and fees at the campuses, reorganizing the staff of UNC President Margaret Spellings and moving the UNC system headquarters out of Chapel Hill.

The proposals came rapid fire in a flurry of resolutions and caught several board members off guard. Some said they hadn’t heard anything about the proposals before they walked into the room.

Billed as a session to heal divisions, the meeting instead illustrated clear factions and a new reality for the UNC system’s 28-member governing board, which was downsized this year by the legislature. A majority of the smaller board, with many new members, apparently plans to take an activist role in overseeing the 17-campus system that educates 230,000 students.

UNC System President Margaret Spellings, left, and UNC Board of Governors Chairman Louis Bissette, listen to board member Tom Fetzer propose a resolution to reduce tuition and fees. during a meeting held Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017 in Chapel Hill. Julia Wall

The meeting followed a scathing letter to Spellings and Board Chairman Lou Bissette that was reported by The News & Observer on Thursday. The Aug. 22 letter, signed by 15 members, took Spellings and Bissette to task for a lack of communication to the members before they sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper about security and future plans for Silent Sam, the Confederate statue on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. Some board members said they had never seen and wouldn’t have signed the letter penned by new member Tom Fetzer.

The two-hour discussion revealed a chasm among members on the overwhelmingly Republican board. Some said the proposals came out of left field and could undermine Spellings’ authority as president. Most of the members who hired Spellings, the former education secretary of Republican George W. Bush, are no longer on the board. Several were not re-elected by the Republican majority legislature earlier this year.

On Thursday, four resolutions passed, including a unanimous vote that commits the board to “endeavor to reduce tuition and fees at all our member institutions while preserving and enhancing the quality of education provided therein.” Though some had concerns that a forced tuition reduction could hurt academics, members agreed that affordability is a top priority.

Other resolutions created special committees to: review the size and scope of the UNC General Administration staff; reorganize the board’s meetings; and study the feasibility of moving the system staff to Raleigh or Research Triangle Park – to combat perceived bias of the system toward the flagship campus in Chapel Hill. Those proposals had split votes.

Anna Spangler Nelson voted against some of them. Of the idea of moving the headquarters away from Chapel Hill, she said she didn’t see the point. It would do nothing, she said, to advance the board’s strategic goals on affordability, accessibility and student success. Nelson is the daughter of former UNC President C.D. Spangler Jr., and the General Administration building is named for him.

The four resolutions were crafted ahead of the meeting and included recommendations about which members should serve on the various special committees. That runs counter to normal board practice, in which the chairman has sole discretion for appointing committee members.

In the resolution to change the board’s meetings, member Marty Kotis proposed that the 17 chancellors and their staffs attend by conference call only, unless the board requested their attendance. Several members disagreed, saying the chancellors offer valuable input about their campuses. In the end, that resolution was rewritten to leave the details up to the special committee.

In an interview, Spellings said she saw the proposals as “housekeeping” matters, not a new direction for the university. The strategic plan already includes metrics to achieve affordability, and she said she had already briefed the board on a new zero-based budgeting process with regard to her staff.

“This group has some policy priorities of their own,” she said. “They’ve made that clear. It’s our job, as they are our elected governing body, to accommodate to the extent we can, their requests. But it’s also incumbent upon us for the good of North Carolina to major in the majors, and work the strategic plan that they’ve adopted, that speak to affordability and efficiency and accountability and student success.”

Spellings attributed Thursday’s actions to the growing pains of a new board with new members that are assimilating. “A lot of this is just educating folks about what’s gone on before their arrival,” she said.

Board member Harry Smith listens to discussions on resolutions proposed at the Board of Governors meeting on Thursday September 7, 2017. Julia Wall

Some saw the proposals as a direct challenge to Spellings’ responsibility, as president, to manage the university system.

“It would seem that we are blurring the lines between policy and management, and I think this, long term, is a recipe for chaos,” said member Joe Knott. “We are not equipped to run this institution.”

Knott further said the Fetzer letter sent to Spellings and Bissette was an inappropriate “public rebuke” put forth by one group without other members seeing it.

“We want to move the university forward,” Knott said. “We want to make changes. I think everybody here, including the president and the chairman, want to do that. But there are ways to do that without doing damage to what has been built over hundreds of years.”

However, one member who signed the letter said it never would have been necessary if members had been properly informed by the president about the Silent Sam issue and the university’s communication about the statue with Gov. Cooper, a Democrat.

Board member Philip Byers said during his two years on the board, some of his questions had not been answered. “An old country boy sheriff from the mountains doesn’t like being told to sit down and be quiet,” he said.

He said he and some board members had felt as if they had been “pushed into a corner.” That’s why he signed on to Fetzer’s concerns, he said. “We send a letter to the governor, and I read about it in the damn News & Observer?”

But Leo Daughtry, a new board member and former Republican legislator, expressed his concern with the “sentiment and intention” of the letter. In an Aug. 23 email, Daughtry wrote that the board’s circulating emails “were clearly written to undermine the leadership of the University and will surely be picked up by the press, which is problematic and makes us look bad as a Board.”

Daughtry added: “We ought to ask ourselves why we are engaging in such a politically driven, back-and-forth prior to this meeting – and why we aren’t coming together on issues of consensus.”

The meeting itself was unusual. The board had originally planned an intensive session on financial aid. But that was scrapped by Bissette after several members came to him with proposals.

The chairman urged healing by board members. “Really the choice is ours,” he said. “We can either create more divisions, or we can all work together for a more united, cohesive board and can deal with the major university issues that we were elected to address.”

Bissette has been a peacemaker on a board with a history of strife the past few years. The previous board ousted the former UNC president, Tom Ross, a Democrat, in what some charged was a politically motivated action.

On Thursday, the chairman said he felt strongly that “I do not want us to do anything to undermine our president’s ability to manage this system.”

Fetzer said there was nothing wrong with the board asserting its responsibility to oversee university leaders, including reviewing the president’s operational staff and making structural changes if they are needed.

“I think we would be negligent if periodically and regularly we didn’t provide that sort of guidance,” said Fetzer, a former mayor of Raleigh.

He said the board should embrace respectful disagreement, which he said would be healthy for the board. Grievances should be aired, he suggested, as they have been throughout American history. He cited the Continental Congress, the Civil War and women’s suffrage as examples.

“Raging internal conflict is a long-held American tradition,” Fetzer said. “Even the casual student of history would have to agree that nothing great in this country occurred without a raging, raucous, robust, passionate debate beforehand.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill