RALEIGH — The day before Thanksgiving, North Carolina’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper named the members of a commission he created that will find ways to “reform and strengthen” how UNC System board members are chosen.
Former UNC System presidents Tom Ross (2011-16) and Margaret Spellings (2016-19) were designated as the co-chairs by Cooper at a press conference announcing the commission.
Joining Ross and Spellings are three lawmakers: current House Majority Leader Rep. John R. Bell IV, current UNC Board of Governors member and former state Rep. John Fraley, and current state Sen. Gladys A. Robinson.
Cooper also named W. Louis Bissette Jr., an attorney with McGuire Wood & Bissette in Asheville; Dr. Nicole Dobbins, an associate professor of special education at North Carolina A&T; Ann Goodnight, an education philanthropist and wife of billionaire CEO and founder of SAS Institute Jim Goodnight; Dr. Clifford A. Jones, Sr., a senior pastor at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte; Gary Locklear, a retired former superior court judge; Karen A. Popp, an attorney with the global law firm Sidley Austin LLP; Hon. Judge Cressie Thigpen, Jr., another retired judge who served on both the superior court and court of appeals; John L. Townsend, III, the current UNC Investment Fund chair; and CEO Emeritus of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Brad Wilson.
Except for Dobbins and Goodnight, all the members of the commission have served on a UNC System board or individual institution board at some point in time.
The governor created the Commission on the Future of Public Universities in North Carolina through executive order 272 issued on Nov. 1. A 15-member commission will evaluate the current governance structure of the entire University of North Carolina System which serves around 240,000 students.
The governor’s executive order lists three main tasks, the first of which is to determine who should appoint the members of the UNC System Board of Governors as well as the members of each institution’s Board of Trustees.
The other two goals laid out by Cooper are deciding how to ensure that the composition of those boards “reflects the regional, ethnic, racial, gender, gender, political, and economic diversity of the state” and create a “set of principles and responsibilities” that should apply to all members of those boards.
The commission will meet up to four times and return recommendations to Cooper’s office within eight months or sometime around July 1, 2023.
Any recommendations the commission makes will likely be symbolic as the General Assembly would have to approve any changes. Following the midterm elections, Republicans now hold a supermajority in the Senate and are one vote shy of a supermajority in the House.
“The UNC system is the envy of the nation for what we have built here,” Cooper said during a press conference announcing the commission. “But there are signs of trouble that come when all of the appointed leaders are chosen by too few. We have an appointed university leadership that doesn’t come close to reflecting our diversity.”
Cooper, now in the final two years of his second term, wants to change the voting member selection process used by the legislature that has remained largely unchanged for decades.
In 2017, the General Assembly altered the appointment method for certain campus trustee board positions by moving them from the governor’s purview to that of the legislature. The commission’s recommendations could hand those appointments back to the governor’s office, however, The Associated Press reported Cooper said he’d ask that change not take effect until 2025 when he leaves office.
Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) and House Speaker Tim Moore’s Chief of Staff Neal Inman were apparently not buying the governor’s commission pitch, per comments reported by The Associated Press.
“You’d have to be naïve to think the purpose of this ‘commission’ is to do anything other than recommend the governor obtain partisan appointments to university boards,” Berger said.
Inman pointed out the state constitution places governance of higher education with the General Assembly. Inman also agreed with Berger’s sentiments, writing in an email there is “no interest in changing the structure of the UNC system, regardless of whatever report this politically-motivated commission produces.”
At the news conference announcing the new commission held at the Executive Mansion, Cooper was joined by both of the former UNC System presidents Ross and Spellings.
“Seeking unbiased review and recommendations on proposed reform from bipartisan leaders with first-hand experience building our great universities will ensure the UNC System’s continued success and I appreciate President Ross’s and President Spellings’s willingness to lead this commission,” Cooper said in the news release that followed the press conference.
The governor’s announcement of the commission went on to claim, “a spate of controversies over the last few years has led to concerns that boards plagued by undue political influence and bureaucratic meddling hinder effective university governance” and blamed “instability and political interference” for impacting the system’s reputation and student experiences.
Ross was hired in 2011 to head up the UNC System. At the time he took over as president, the nation’s economy was in a recession that resulted in system budget cuts and a 55% increase in the average tuition between 2008 and 2011.
While president, Ross along with then-UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol L. Folt oversaw the investigation by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein into allegations of widespread academic fraud by student athletes at Chapel Hill from 1993 to 2011. Published in October 2014, the Wainstein report detailed more than 3,000 students had been enrolled in “paper classes” that didn’t exist outside Chapel Hill’s Department for African American studies.
In 2015, 31 of the 32 Board of Governors voted to fire Ross, who left the role officially in 2016 after receiving a raise in salary to $600,000. Democrats, including Cooper, characterized the firing as Ross being “forced out.” He was a former Davidson College president as well as a former judge. He also headed up the left-leaning Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
A former U.S. education secretary under President George W. Bush, Spellings was Ross’ replacement. She oversaw a turbulent period as Cooper and the legislature fought over the Charlotte Ordinance that allowed men into women’s bathrooms and the subsequent passage of House Bill 2 that reversed the ordinance.
Spellings’ appointment was met with protests by various student groups. During her brief tenure, she also presided over protests demanding the removal of Confederate statues like Silent Sam on the UNC Chapel Hill campus. Spellings resigned in 2018 after just two years on the job with a parting severance of over $500,000.