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North Carolina governor Roy Cooper formed the Commission on the Governance of Public Universities last November to study “instability and political interference” in governance at both the institutional and system levels.
Concerns about partisanship at University of North Carolina campuses have increased in recent years, reaching a peak in February when the system’s Board of Governors implemented a “compelled speech ban” that resembled bills in Florida and Texas. Tensions have been especially high at the flagship Chapel Hill campus after a series of controversial decisions, including the creation of a new School of Civic Life and the denial of tenure to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.
Now the commission has released its initial findings, along with seven recommendations for increasing transparency and reducing partisanship on public university governing boards. Those include significantly expanding the boards and splitting appointments between the majority and minority parties in the state Legislature instead of allowing the entire Legislature to vote on each appointment, a process that has inevitably led one party’s appointees—Republicans, since their statehouse takeover in 2010—to dominate.
The commission also suggested lengthening board members’ terms from four to eight years while limiting them to one term on each board, increasing the size of every institution’s board to 15 members and the system Board of Governors from 24 to 36, recording general meetings for transparency and implementing a “cool-off” period for lobbyists or politicians before they are eligible for an appointment. The initial proposals will be followed by a full report next month.
But the recommendations would need to be explicitly taken up by legislators and voted into law, an unlikely outcome considering the state’s General Assembly is dominated by Republicans who would be effectively conceding power.
Cooper, a Democrat, has long campaigned against what he views as undue and corrosive political activism among university governing boards. He told Inside Higher Ed that the commission’s recommendations are meant not as a political play for power, as some of his critics have asserted, but as a protective measure for a university system he described as “this state’s crown jewel.”
“There is not just a perception of partisan influence; it’s very real,” Cooper said. “Appointed leadership boards are there to provide bold, visionary strategic planning, but we’re seeing the Board of Governors and boards of trustees move toward more direct involvement in the administration of campuses and how they operate. So I see some real erosion that I think could be shored up by implementing these recommendations.”
While there was no mention of it in the press release, a spokesperson for Cooper said the commission also plans to recommend that the governor’s office be given back the four appointments for each campus Board of Trustees it was entitled to before the General Assembly stripped those rights in 2016, shortly before Cooper took office.
Cooper stressed that change should not be made until 2025, after he leaves office, to avoid claims that he is working in his own personal interest. Still, he said it would be “a kind of corrective measure,” and that all the commission’s suggestions aim to reset what he believes has been an increasingly dangerous imbalance of power in the state’s public university system governance.
“The recommendations wouldn’t take a single appointment away from the General Assembly leadership,” he said. “What this does is it sets up a system where the university is stable regardless of partisan political storms, which can blow both ways.”
‘Do No Harm’
When real estate developer Roger Perry was appointed to the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees in 2002, he asked his mentor, a more senior board member, for some advice. His colleague shared a simple mantra borrowed from the medical field that Perry said sticks with him to this day: “Before anything else, do no harm.”
Perry, who served on the board until 2010, including as chair from 2007 to 2009, said that principle—work to improve but never undermine the sustainability and legitimacy of the university—guided board members from across the ideological and political spectrum during his time there.
“Whenever we took action or a position, we tried to ask ourselves, ‘Is this going to do harm in our effort to achieve this?’” said Perry, who founded Coalition for Carolina in 2021 to advocate against partisanship in governance and threats to academic freedom. “I don’t think the current [board] leadership is concerned about that or even asks themselves that question.”
Marty Kotis, a current member of UNC Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees and former Board of Governors member, said he did not see any evidence of overt partisanship in the governance of the system or its campuses. In fact, he said UNC’s governance has become more rigorous and effective in recent years.
“It’s not that there’s more partisanship on the boards; we’re just more engaged,” he said. “We’re actually discussing things and actively doing our jobs. That’s different from the past, when it was more of a rubber-stamp gig where you show up and get your game tickets and go to cocktail parties. Really, you were there to make a couple of comments and have people tell you how smart you are. That’s not governance.”
Perry said that such activism is clearly partisan, and he worries that controversial decisions by UNC governing boards have already caused damage to the system.
“Despite the strength of our university, it’s a very fragile thing. If you all of a sudden had a flight of a large number of extraordinary faculty members—which is what our fear is—you could wake up and find you had lost a lot of the appeal to students and research power,” he said. “[Board members] are very clumsy and heavy-handed in promoting their agendas over all else and don’t, frankly, seem to understand what is at risk.”
Tom Ross, co-chair of the Commission on Governance and president of the UNC system from 2011 to 2016, said ensuring board appointees come from both parties would allow dissenting voices to help shape governance decisions and prevent ideological one-sidedness.
“The board functioned at its best when there was a mix of representation,” he said. “It forced the politics out of the room and created simple, good debate among people who might have differences on the issues, but where everybody was focused on what was best for the university.”
Cooper added that he hoped the commission’s recommendations, if adopted, would lead to more diverse representation on the boards. Of the 24 members of the system’s Board of Governors, only four are not white and six are women.
“It’s critically important that we have leadership that reflects North Carolinians, whether that’s making it more racially diverse or having more women or folks from outside the Research Triangle,” the governor said.
A Long-Shot Bet on Bipartisanship
The commission was clearly designed to be bipartisan. Cooper named Ross and fellow former UNC system president Margaret Spellings, who were appointed by opposing political parties—Spellings served as George W. Bush’s education secretary—as co-chairs and added members from across the ideological spectrum.
“There’s a lot of political posturing on all sides, but I think [the commission] will get a fair hearing,” Ross said. “I believe there’s always room to find middle ground, and that every public servant, regardless of whether we agree or not, has that desire in their heart.”
Other sources from both parties said that kind of bipartisan goodwill is in short supply these days. Perry said that while the commission’s recommendations would “certainly make a big difference in ensuring some parity and diversity” on the boards, he’s doubtful state lawmakers will see much reason to even consider adopting them.
“Lawmakers and their appointees have certainly suggested in their words and actions that they are willing to subordinate the well-being of the university system to try and promote their political agenda,” he said.
Kotis, the Republican-appointed Chapel Hill board member, saw no clear path toward compromise, either.
“[Cooper] has no good hand right now, no leverage at all” over Republican state assembly members, he said. “The punch line for all of this is the Democrats are doing it because they don’t like that they’re not in power anymore. That’s the long and short of it.”
Even within the commission, partisan fault lines started showing shortly after its launch. House majority leader John Bell joined the commission in November but quickly distanced himself after taking issue with its focus on “diversity and inclusion and wokeness and power grabs and personal political agendas,” as he told The Assembly. But he is still listed as a member on the governor’s website.
(Bell did not respond to Inside Higher Ed’s request for comment in time for publication.)
Ross and Cooper agreed that the commission’s recommendations are part of a long-term strategy to pressure lawmakers to compromise.
“Whether they [adopt the changes] or not, during the months before they come back for the next session, I think you’re going to have a lot of alumni, a lot of people who are deeply concerned and love our university, who will read this report and advocate for it,” Cooper said. “And I think legislators are going to hear from them.”