Screenshot from a PBS North Carolina public broadcast
Early last month, the University of North Carolina system’s Board of Governors approved a ban on “compelled speech,” preventing colleges from requiring prospective students or employees to “affirmatively ascribe to or opine about beliefs, affiliations, ideals or principles regarding matters of contemporary political debate.”
The vote was taken in response to an application question that North Carolina State University introduced in 2021, which asked applicants to affirm their commitment to “building a just and inclusive community.” N.C. State removed that question a few days before the board’s vote.
Nathan Grove, a chemistry professor at UNC Wilmington and the chair of the campus’s Faculty Senate, said that vote served as a wake-up call for him and his colleagues. They saw it as a sign that the Board of Governors, which was “usually pretty hands-off,” he said, could take “a more heavy-handed approach” on certain issues. Worse, Grove said, the decision was based on a misunderstanding.
“We don’t ask politically charged questions in our interviews. We just don’t,” he said. “Are we interested in hearing about how you view reaching out to underserved populations of North Carolina? Yes, we are. But that’s also a big concern for the system.”
Art Pope, a member of the Board of Governors since 2020 and a prolific Republican donor, denied that the compelled speech vote was motivated by politics.
“To say that a statute banning political speech requirements is part of a political agenda is absurd,” he told Inside Higher Ed. “It is anti-political; it is protecting the rights of employees, including university faculty, so they cannot be compelled to subscribe to a political ideology.”
Jane Stancill, the system’s vice president for communications, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that the “policy revision” banning compelled speech is “content neutral.”
It’s not the first time the board has drawn cries of partisan overreach. In 2015 it shut down a center on poverty and opportunity at UNC Chapel Hill, whose director was a vocal critic of conservatives, along with two other centers: one for environmental science, at East Carolina University, and the other dedicated to social change, at North Carolina Central University. In 2017 the board barred Chapel Hill’s Law Center for Civil Rights from filing litigation, a move that essentially shuttered the center and which its director called “an ideological attack.”
Holden Thorp, who was chancellor at Chapel Hill from 2008 to 2012, said the idea that such moves are not motivated by politics is “ridiculous.”
“I find it frustrating that they're trying to paint it as if its not part of a political force. Of course it’s political; it's always been political,” said Thorp, now editor in chief of Science. “But UNC has a proud tradition. They’re trying to make it seem like nothing is changing when it clearly is.”
What’s changing, the board’s critics assert, is that the overt politicization of higher ed, starkest in Florida and Texas, has spread to the Tar Heel State, where years of partisan contention between lawmaker-appointed board members and campus constituents have laid the groundwork for a heightened battle over issues like diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and critical race theory.
But North Carolina, as many sources who spoke with Inside Higher Ed pointed out, is not Florida. For one, it is a far purpler state, with a Democratic governor and, as of 2020, more registered Democrats than Republicans on its voter rolls. Lawmakers are also highly invested in the state’s higher ed institutions; Thorp stressed that any move that could destabilize UNC is not taken lightly by lawmakers of either party.
“Without UNC, the economy of North Carolina would not be what it is, and they don’t want to endanger that,” Thorp said. “When they tried to pass the [2016 anti-transgender] bathroom bill, for example, all hell broke loose and they had to walk it back.”
Still, recent actions taken by the Board of Governors, like the compelled speech ban, point to a growing boldness around hot-button political issues. As tensions rise in an increasingly polarized national debate about higher ed, the UNC system appears to be at a crossroads.
Paul Fulton, a former member of the Board of Governors from 2009 to 2013, said he doesn’t think UNC has quite reached the tipping point, but he is increasingly concerned about the future of what he calls “one of our state’s greatest assets.”
“We’re a resilient system, and we’re nowhere near the Florida or Texas level [of political influence],” he said. “But we do have a hint of that nowadays. And it is worrisome.”
Avoiding Florida’s Long Shadow
UNC Chapel Hill, the system’s flagship, has frequently found itself at the center of debates about political interference. In 2021, trustees tabled a scheduled tenure vote for Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones over her leadership of The New York Times’ “1619 Project.” Last month, a directive from the Chapel Hill campus’s own Board of Trustees to fast-track a new School of Civic Life and Leadership reignited the conflict between trustees and faculty members.
But the system at large has recently come under fire over similar concerns, well before the compelled speech ban. Last March, the Association of American University Professors released a report detailing its concerns about partisanship and political overreach in the UNC system at large—not just Chapel Hill, but Appalachian State University, Fayetteville State University and East Carolina and Western Carolina Universities.
The AAUP went beyond its usual censure and “condemned” the entire system for “mounting political interference in university policy.”
On Feb. 21, the Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina held the first of a planned series of public forums. Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, launched the commission in November to examine “instability and political interference” by the system’s Board of Governors and campus Boards of Trustees.
Kimberly van Noort, the system’s senior vice president for academic affairs and current interim chancellor at UNC Asheville, pushed back on the AAUP report, writing that it was a “relentlessly grim portrayal of one of the nation’s strongest, most vibrant and most productive university systems.”
North Carolina has not gone as far as Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis has engaged in a protracted takeover of the state’s higher education system, from banning DEI offices to installing loyalists on the New College of Florida’s Board of Trustees, all with the openly political goal of fighting “woke activism.”
Still, worries abound that partisan infighting, however contained, could have detrimental effects on UNC campuses. Grove said political tensions have gotten much worse since he started teaching at UNC Wilmington 13 years ago and are a “major distraction” from pressing practical issues.
“Every time you’re having a conversation about DEI or compelled speech, for example, you’re not having a conversation about affordability and accessibility,” he said.
He also worries that the partisan influence could usher in a period of decline and brain drain for the system, whose faculty and staff turnover rates doubled in 2021.
“The more that we focus on hot-button issues and enact policies that respond to those, we’re going to have a harder time attracting and retaining faculty,” he said. “My colleagues and I all know people in Texas and in Florida that see the writing on the wall, and they’re getting out, because that’s not an environment that is supportive of their work. I would really hate to see that happen here.”
Governing by Grievance?
UNC’s 24-member Board of Governors is entirely appointed by members of the state’s Republican-majority General Assembly. Rob Anderson, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that such appointments are unique in that “most similar structures involve appointment or approval by a state governor.” But it’s been that way in North Carolina for over half a century.
The appointment process for campus Boards of Trustees, however, was recently changed. In 2016, shortly after Cooper was elected governor, the state Legislature voted to strip him of his traditional four appointments to each campus board and give them to the Legislature.
This angered faculty members across the system, many of whom said it was a calculated move to deprive the first Democratic governor since the 2010 Republican takeover of his influence on UNC governance. Regardless of intent, faculty and former system leaders who spoke with Inside Higher Ed said it was symbolic of the political tug-of-war they believe has defined much of UNC’s contentious governance since.
Last May, for instance, legislators voted to uproot the UNC system’s headquarters from its longtime home in Chapel Hill and relocate it to the capital, Raleigh. The move had been debated for years, but the board’s decision to abruptly relocate it to a rented office in Raleigh while awaiting construction of its new building earned it critics even within the Board of Governors itself; former board member Leo Daughtry, a longtime state GOP leader, said it was another attempt to consolidate power by putting system leadership under the watchful eye of the General Assembly.
Anderson said that regardless of lawmakers’ involvement, system leaders were responsible for “cultivating trust” above and beyond partisan allegiance. North Carolina, in his view, has so far succeeded in this regard.
It’s a task that many say has become more difficult as higher ed has moved firmly into the national political spotlight. Thorp said the threat of partisan interference from board members and state lawmakers has gotten “way more serious” since he left Chapel Hill.
“I’m just glad I’m retired,” said Thorp, who left his final higher education job, as provost at Washington University in St. Louis, in 2019. “It’s miserable dealing with all of that.”
Thorp, who was appointed by former system president Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, in 2008, said navigating political dynamics has always been part of the job, albeit a frustrating one. He resigned as chancellor in 2012, after mounting pressure over scandals in the athletic department, but said the board’s political shift after Republicans won the legislature in 2010 “had a big impact on what happened with me.” His successor, Carol Folt, resigned in 2019 after clashing with the board over her decision not to re-erect a Confederate monument known as “Silent Sam” that was toppled by protesters.
“We’ve seen massive turnover at the highest levels, at Chapel Hill but also at the system level, and it was basically all for political reasons,” said Fulton, who also sat on the Chapel Hill Board of Trustees from 2001 to 2009.
Former system president Tom Ross, who is now helping to lead Governor Cooper’s commission on governance, was pushed out in 2015, and many onlookers suspected political disagreements played a role in his ouster. Even his successor, former Bush administration education secretary Margaret Spellings, left in 2019 amid grumblings that she was not sufficiently conservative for the board.
Two years before her departure, Spellings was chastised by a majority of the Board of Governors for her handling of the controversy over whether to take down the Silent Sam monument, before it was brought down by demonstrators. The board’s main objection was that she reached out to Cooper, a Democrat, for advice.
Spellings, who was named co-chair of Cooper's commission on governance along with Ross, did not respond to Inside Higher Ed’s request for comment in time for publication, citing a schedule issue.
Fulton, who describes himself as a “lifelong Republican,” said things were different when he sat on the Board of Governors.
“I didn’t really know the political affiliation of most of my colleagues there,” he said. “Politics didn’t really play into our work then. But now it’s pretty darn partisan, and I think that’s reflected in a number of actions [the board] has taken recently.”
He said the best way to combat that is to “depoliticize” the selection process for board members, from campus trustees to the Board of Governors. To that end, he said he hopes the current board and the legislators who appointed them “listen carefully and seriously” to the recommendations of Cooper’s commission on governance.
"We have to look at the appointment process," he said. "If it isn't depoliticized, I'm afraid the system will be significantly and permanently diminished."
Pope, the Board of Governors member, said he’d be listening in on the commission’s public forums with interest via Zoom. But in terms of implementing changes, the ball remains firmly in the hands of Republican lawmakers.
“The governor is entirely within his right to establish this commission and explore recommendations, but it has no force of law behind it,” he said. “The most Cooper’s commission can do is try to persuade the Legislature.”