Too many lawyers? The Higher Education Governance Commission examines board memberships at its first public forum

Photo: Screenshot from Tuesday’s meeting at UNC-Wilmington

In their first public hearing session Tuesday, members of the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina heard concerns from parents and faculty members of UNC-Wilmington while setting out their mission.

At the meeting, which was held in Wilmington and was streamed live online, the commission outlined the appointment process for the UNC system’s board of directors and trustees at the system’s 16 sites. The Commission is also examining how this governance can better reflect the ethnic, racial, gender, regional, economic and political diversity of the state.

Three of the fifteen members of the commission – Gary Locklear, Isaiah Green and Lou Bissette – personally attended the listening session.

“I think our system is incredibly strong,” said Bissette, a past chair of the UNC Board of Governors who currently serves on the UNC-Asheville Board of Trustees. “I think it’s without a doubt the best system in the United States. What we’re doing here, which the governor has asked us to do, is take a look at the current system of governance – get ideas from all fifteen commissioners, who are very perceptive themselves, and get ideas from the public.”

This mission was not without controversy. When Gov. Roy Cooper established the commission by executive order in November, House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) immediately condemned it as a partisan exercise. Before the members of the commission were named or a single meeting was held, Moore said the General Assembly, which tightly controls the nomination procedures for the Board of Governors and Board of Trustees, was not interested in his proposals.

This criticism from conservative quarters has continued, although Cooper has named 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 can get everyone around the same table”

Lou Bissette

Bissette, a lifelong Republican, has been vocal about his concerns about the partisanship of the Board of Governors during his tenure. In an essay for Higher Ed Works, he pointed out that early in his 12-year tenure, Republicans and Democrats were roughly evenly balanced on the board. But when Republicans gained control of the State House and Senate, they purged the 24-seat board of all Democrats.

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After years of criticizing the composition of the board, they added one Democrat — former state senator Joel Ford. Ford, an atypical Democrat, often clashed with his own party during his six-year tenure and eventually lost in a primary after winning had been heavily criticized for often voting with Republicans and openly proposing to join the GOP.

On Tuesday, Bissette said he hopes the commission’s proposals – which they will present to the governor by June – will find open minds across party lines.

“We are committed to improving the governance of the University of North Carolina as a college,” Bissette said. “We’ll report to the governor. We have no control over where it goes from there. But I think, and I 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 a 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.

Issia Green

“I look forward to these discussions and other discussions … in the Board of Governors and in the state legislature about how we can improve this system,” Green said. “I think as we continue to work together to find solutions, that’s exactly why the governor wanted us to be such a bipartisan process and make sure we find solutions that hopefully will bring everyone around the table to support our.” system to develop better.”

Locklear, a retired Superior Court judge and former member of the UNC-Pembroke Board of Trustees, said education must come before politics.

“It’s not about Governor Cooper,” Locklear said. “The office of governor — regardless of which person or party holds that office — decides whether they should have some influence over the selection of people to serve in those positions.”

Beyond mere political affiliation, Locklear said racial and ethnic diversity is important on boards.

“I’m a Lumbee Indian,” Locklear said. “I can’t just look ahead. I need to recognize where I come from. And I know that there has to be room for everyone at the table. I can’t say it any easier than that.”

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During the public comment period, several people asked committee members to explain the basic function of the Board of Governors. They also wanted to know how board members and individual campus trustees are selected.

Gary Locklear

The legislature appoints the members of the Board of Governors. But every 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 officers.

Eight of these appointments are made by the Board of Governors and four by the Legislature. But it wasn’t always like that.

Traditionally, the governor appointed four members of each board of trustees. When Republican Gov. Pat McCrory lost to Cooper in 2016, the GOP-dominated legislature stripped several powers from the governorship before the Democrat could take office. Among them were those trustee appointments.

When asked why that happened, Bissette said he couldn’t say for sure because he wasn’t in the Legislature at the time.

“I probably have some ideas on that,” he said. “We live in a political country and we always have been.”

representation counts

But the governor’s place in a nomination process is not the main issue, commissioners said. Cooper has said that if the commission recommends changes to his role in appointments, he would advise that they take place after he leaves office.

More broadly, commissioners said, those who now rule the system don’t look much like North Carolina — neither in terms of race and gender, but also in terms of geography.

“I live up west,” said Bissette, who served two terms as mayor of Asheville. “One issue I have with this right now is that the board of governors has one member west of Winston-Salem. We have four institutions up there – UNC-Asheville, Western [Carolina University]Appalachia [State University] and the new [campus of the School for Science and Mathematics] up in Morganton. I’m a big fan of geographic diversity. I think this is so important because each of our institutions is so different.”

Nathan Grove, UNC-Wilmington faculty president, said the employment of an individual appointed to the board of governors is important. It’s now filled with former lawmakers, attorneys, finance professionals, and professional political lobbyists.

Nathaniel Grove (Photo: Jeff Janowski/UNCW)

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“That’s one of the governance critiques I would give,” Grove said. “Not that it isn’t important that you have people on the board who have a deep understanding of financial issues, business issues and political issues, because like you said, we live in a political country, right? But I think there’s a movement, especially on the board, to have people who really don’t understand what the day-to-day running of an institution is like. So it’s really easy to then form 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 come to graduation ceremonies.

“But if you actually had more contact and conversations with faculty, with students and with staff, you would have a much better idea of ​​what’s actually happening,” Grove said.

Because the board of governors is made up of political appointees, Grove said, there is very little public accountability for them. Pleasing a single political party in the legislature can often lead to petty political squabbles and incursions into culture war issues. That damages the legitimacy of the board, he said.

“There are a lot of non-productive conversations that happen … because they’re trying to score political points,” Grove said. “Part of it is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”

The board should focus on pressing issues, Grove said, rather than “getting involved in the shiny things that Florida and Texas are doing and therefore we need to be doing in North Carolina.”

Bissette said he believes appointees should have a demonstrable connection to or an active interest in education. Having served as a trustee before rising 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 is not good. Not many, but it happened.”

In some states, university system board members are elected, Bissette said, although nothing of the sort has 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 February 28 in Asheville. More information about this meeting, including the ability to attend remotely, can be found here.