University of North Carolina System’s Governance Goes Under the Microscope

An executive order by Gov. Roy Cooper created a committee to examine how leaders of the state's public university system are chosen.
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  • North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order creating a committee to assess the structure of the University of North Carolina system.
  • The committee will examine who chooses board members and representation of regional diversity, as well as create principles and responsibilities for members.
  • The North Carolina General Assembly controls board member selection, not the executive office.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper wants to take a deeper look at the governing structure of the University of North Carolina system following several high-profile controversies that have led to allegations of undue political influence.

Last week, Cooper signed an executive order establishing the Commission on the Future of Public Universities, which will investigate the governance of the state's public universities and make recommendations to the governor on how to reform and strengthen the structure.

"Instability and political interference can have significant impacts on campus leadership, turnover, and academic experience for students, and can threaten the university’s reputation and the state’s economy and communities," said the press release.

According to the statement, the committee will be co-chaired by former UNC system presidents Tom Ross (2011-2016) and Margaret Spellings (2016-2019). It will be bipartisan and have at least 15 members with experience in the UNC system, higher education, and governance best practices within higher education.

Per the executive order, the committee must meet at least four times and deliver a report assessing the governance structure and recommendations before July 1, 2023.

How Board Selection Works Now

The UNC system is governed by a board of governors (BOG), which oversees all UNC system schools and subsequent boards of trustees (BOTs) for each of the system's 17 institutions.

UNC's BOG was created in 1971 as a nonpartisan body to lead the system. The state's General Assembly selects the BOG members, and some BOT members, in a process led by the House speaker and president pro tempore of the senate.

The selected BOG members then select the individual institutions' BOT members.

Cooper's committee could change all that, and his executive order states that one purpose of the committee is to determine who should appoint BOG and BOT members.

Other responsibilities include ensuring that delegated members reflect the regional, racial, gender, political, and economic diversity of the state.

The UNC system educates 244,500 annually and has a $27.9 billion impact on the state.

"North Carolina's public universities are our most valuable assets and the key to building a stronger economy with opportunity for everyone, and they need serious, diverse leadership committed to working together for the good of our students, faculty, future employers, and our state," Cooper said in the press release.

Mitch Kokai, a John Locke Foundation senior political analyst, said in The Center Square that Cooper is making the right move, despite his doubts that an executive order is the best way to pursue such discussions.

Cooper is a Democrat while the North Carolina General Assembly is Republican-controlled. However, if Republicans win two state Senate seats and three state House seats tomorrow, they will have veto-proof majorities.

"Since any change to governance of the University of North Carolina would require action from the General Assembly — not the governor — it's interesting that Gov. Cooper has decided to take on the issue unilaterally," said Kokai in the article. "One could make a good argument that the governor is going out of his way to antagonize leaders of the General Assembly. That decision bodes ill for relations between the executive and legislative branches in the months ahead."

A System Still Reeling from Nikole Hannah-Jones Controversy

Recent controversies have led to concerns that undue political influence and bureaucratic meddling plague the boards and hinder effective university governance, Cooper said in his announcement of the executive order.

"Instability and political interference can have significant impacts on campus leadership, turnover and academic experience for students, and can threaten the university's reputation and the state's economy and communities," he said.

Though Cooper didn't mention it specifically, the most notable controversy to rock the UNC system in the last two years was the denial of tenure and subsequent settlement with journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize recipient and alum of UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

In April 2021, Hannah-Jones was named the Knight chair in race and investigative journalism at the Hussman School — a position that had historically received academic tenure since the 1980s. She was also recommended for tenure by a supportive group of faculty members and Susan King, dean of the Hussman School's board of trustees.

However, Hannah-Jones' tenure approval was ultimately denied. Instead, she was offered a five-year contract with the possibility of a tenure review.

Hannah-Jones, along with many other critics of the decision, believe that she was denied tenure because of her contributions to "The 1619 Project," which aimed "to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative."

After national scrutiny and an internal uprising, the board reversed its decision, and Hannah-Jones was eventually granted tenure.

She denied the offer and instead accepted a position as the Knight chair in race and reporting at Howard University, sparking a national conversation about diversification and academic freedom in higher education.

The fallout from the saga continues to impact UNC-Chapel Hill.

Hannah-Jones had filed a discrimination lawsuit over the initial decision denying her tenure. Last July, Hannah-Jones, with the support of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, reached an agreement with the university. According to The Daily Tarheel, UNC-Chapel Hill will pay $74,999.99 to resolve the legal matter from last year, only a penny off from requiring chancellor approval, and institute a slew of measures to support the work of faculty and students of color.

Earlier this year, UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School was demoted to "provisional status" following a vote from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications.