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The University of North Carolina Board of Governors voted on Friday to censure a trustee of East Carolina University, one of its constituent institutions. Another trustee resigned.
The two men in question, Phil Lewis, who resigned, and Robert Moore, who was censured, were both accused of meddling in student government elections at ECU by offering campaign contributions to a former student government president if she ran again and agreed to support them. The student government president is a member of the ECU Board of Trustees. Their goal was to shift the board's leadership.
Censuring Moore was the strongest action the Board of Governors could take, as he was appointed as an ECU trustee by the state Legislature and could not be removed by the Board of Governors. The news was first reported by North Carolina paper The News & Observer.
Chair of the Board of Governors Randy Ramsey expressed disappointment at the events. “Personally, if I could remove the entire board today, I probably would,” he said at a meeting Friday, The News & Observer reported. “This has got to end.”
Moore said at the meeting that he and Lewis acted with good intentions. Meeting with student candidates is the norm, he said, especially when there's a divided board.
Jeff Popke, a professor of geography and chair of the faculty at ECU, said that the actions of the trustees and the recent commentary around the university -- with one editorial calling the college “a great embarrassment” -- have taken an enormous toll on university morale.
“It is difficult to overstate the level of outrage that was expressed on our campus, and there is a clear sense among faculty that their behavior not only violated UNC System policy, but also runs counter to the values of our community and the minimal expectations for responsible and ethical Board conduct,” Popke said via email.
He said that the governing boards should focus on fiduciary oversight and long-term strategy rather than political agendas and micromanagement.
“Our faculty have lost confidence in the ability of our governing boards to play a constructive role in support of our work and ECU’s mission,” Popke said via email. “This begins with the Board of Governors, which under the current Republican legislature has become increasingly partisan and meddlesome, and has in turn tended to appoint trustees cut from the same cloth.”
The scandal follows a string of high-profile incidents in the UNC system. The system’s Board of Governors has shown itself willing to be political and clash with administrators. Early last year, Carol Folt, chancellor of UNC at Chapel Hill, had her resignation accelerated by the board when she announced she would be taking down the remnants of Silent Sam, a Confederate soldier monument abhorred by outspoken students. Margaret Spellings, former U.S. secretary of education and president of the UNC system, left office that same month. Cecil Staton, then-chancellor of ECU, announced last March he was departing in a resignation he "did not initiate."
Many have called for the Board of Governors, which has some hand in electing trustees for the constituent institutions, to reform its practices and be less influenced by state politics. The North Carolina General Assembly appoints all governors to the board, a practice some have said must change.
Erskine Bowles, former president of the UNC system and White House chief of staff under President Clinton, and Richard Vinroot, Republican former mayor of Charlotte, together wrote an opinion piece in The News & Observer decrying the process and calling for reform.
“There seems to be a feeling now among some in the General Assembly and on the UNC Board of Governors that the Chapel Hill campus in particular, and the UNC ‘system’ in general, are infected with a liberal bias and that university leaders and students, for that matter, need to be ‘taught a lesson’ with more heavy-handed oversight,” Bowles and Vinroot wrote. “Republican lawmakers have named conservatives of their own party to the Board of Governors and changed the governance rules to diminish any appointive authority in the governor’s office. This type of action risks turning the Board of Governors into a purely political organization doing the bidding of our legislative leaders.”
A campaign website, Reform UNC System Governance, currently lists 1,767 supporters.
Popke said he agreed the system needs to change. “Faculty and students across the system have a right to expect that their governors and trustees will be selected based upon their qualifications and not their political fealty, their potential contributions rather than their campaign contributions,” he said via email. “We deserve better.”
David Powers, chair of the governing committee within the Board of Governors, said that the next meeting would include a review of board policy on self-governance, including discipline of board members.
“The committee plans to begin reviewing the board’s policy on sanctions of Board of Trustee members, including procedures for how to request actions be taken by the board,” Powers said in a statement. “I will also form a working group, in consultation with Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey, composed of student body presidents, chancellors and members of Board of Trustees and Board of Governors to review student election procedures and ensure adequate anti-tampering procedures are in place.”
"While our policy allows for a petition to the BOG to remove a campus trustee that the BOG appoints," Powers said via email, "the procedure for such actions is vague. Furthermore, the only disciplinary measure outlined in the current policy is removal and does not explicitly describe other available alternatives such as reprimand or censure."
Powers said examining student elections is important to prevent any inappropriate interference. Student presidents are voting members of their respective institutions' boards.
Lewis, the trustee who resigned, had complained that due process had not been upheld before his meeting with the Board of Governors. The ECU board chairman originally asked the two men to resign. When they didn't, he filed a complaint with the governors.
David Green, a professor of law at North Carolina Central University and chair of the UNC system Faculty Assembly, said he was pleased with Powers's leadership.
"Powers has regularly shown a commitment to the principles of shared governance and inclusiveness in decision making,” Green said via email. “Moreover, I was pleased that in forming a working group regarding student election procedures, he is including student leaders, chancellors, members of Board of Trustees and Board of Governors.” Powers has also reached out to the system faculty assembly for discussion, Green said.
UNC’s reputation, many have said, will depend on this reform.
“It should not be too much to ask that our board members be individuals of high character who will put the interests of the institutions that they serve above and beyond personal or political agendas. But in recent years, we at ECU have not always seen this,” Popke said via email.
“The resulting governance dysfunction is, I am afraid, doing lasting damage to the UNC System and its constituent institutions.”