The Struggle for Power at UNC
Nikole Hannah-Jones declined UNC-Chapel Hill’s offer of tenure, the result of a costly and drawn-out governance debate. At Carolina, the backlash is just beginning // Photos by Ira Wilder
In a meeting room in the red-brick, century-old Carolina Inn on a sweltering afternoon last week, Gene Davis, vice chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, found himself in a precarious spot. The board’s chair was recovering from minor surgery and attending by videoconference, leaving Davis to preside over one of the board’s most anticipated meetings in decades.
The board was to decide whether to grant tenure to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones—a question that had convulsed the UNC community for six weeks. “If every dispute about the history of race in America, every right-wing culture war and every debate over journalistic objectivity could be settled on a single battlefield,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, “the location might be Chapel Hill, N.C. And the time might be Wednesday afternoon.”
When the board voted to go into private session, as is typical for personnel matters, student protestors, unfamiliar with board protocol, resisted leaving and were pushed—hard—out of the room by campus police. It was a loud, ugly, profanity-laced scene that reverberated through the hallways of the old inn.
Six days later, faculty, students, alumni, and interested observers across the country tuned in to CBS This Morning to hear Hannah-Jones announce her decision: She would not be coming to UNC-Chapel Hill.
“It’s not my job to heal the University of North Carolina,” said Hannah-Jones. “That’s the job of the people in power who created the situation in the first place.”
That healing process has yet to begin. And at least at the Board of Trustee level, it may worsen before it improves.
The heir-apparent to the chairmanship, who actively supported tenure for Hannah-Jones, tells The Assembly he is no longer running for the position, as a more confrontational board is expected to take over. Among its leaders is likely to be the trustee who has publicly echoed Senate leader Phil Berger’s recent direct criticism of the university’s chancellor, Kevin Guskiewicz.
“Anyone in a position of governance has to have questions about the ability of the current team [at UNC-CH] to do what needs to be done,” trustee John Preyer of Chapel Hill, a Republican who is close to Berger, told The Assembly.
That view is not universal among state Republicans, who currently control all appointments to the UNC-CH Board of Trustees. In an email obtained by The Assembly, a former chair of the UNC System Board of Governors defended the management of UNC-CH and flatly told Berger he owed top officials an apology.
The question for Carolina is whether the latest fights are a continuation of the struggles of the past decade or the start of a more significant power shift.
Across multiple chancellors, UNC-CH has pushed through lawsuits, protests, investigations, and governance crises by emphasizing positivity over fundamental self-critique. With its guard up and engine moving, it raised record sums of money and drove record enrollment while doing relatively little to shift the institution’s foundational status quo.
But this moment may prove different for the state’s flagship, in part because of a changing power dynamic at one of its most important levels—the Board of Trustees.
Davis, a 1990 UNC-CH graduate, occupies a unique space as a Democrat and Raleigh lawyer with close ties to North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore. Davis actively pushed behind the scenes for weeks for tenure for Hannah-Jones, making calls and counting votes, according to several board sources.
He has two years remaining on his term, but last week’s meeting likely was the final time he will wield the chair’s gavel. Six new members join this month, and many at the university had hoped Davis, as vice chair, would be elected chairman as the new board begins its work.
But Davis told The Assembly he has decided not to seek the position. Even if he could get elected chair, he feared his support for Hannah-Jones would be a point of contention with the new board, which is expected to be more aggressive with UNC-CH administrators.
Student activists from the Black Student Movement speak to Board of Trustees vice chair Gene Davis after the BOT meeting that granted tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones // Photo by Ira Wilder, The Daily Tar Heel
In a highly unusual move, none of the five nominees recommended this spring by Guskiewicz for the university’s Board of Trustees was chosen by the UNC System Board of Governors, which is appointed by the Republican-controlled legislature. The Board of Governors instead named its own slate of four, and the General Assembly named two others.
“I would have been putting that board in the position of being in opposition to the chairman,” Davis said. “I’m afraid the university might have been further punished. So I am not going to run for chair. ... I felt it was in the best interests of the university, when looking at the incoming board members, to have someone who would be more aligned with their positions.”
Chuck Duckett, a Republican whose term on the board expired last week, said Davis likely would not be part of the new board’s leadership team.
“I don’t expect him to be an officer on the next board,” Duckett said. “It’s a shame. Gene cares deeply about this university.” He said Davis had pushed for tenure for Hannah-Jones knowing that it would make it more difficult for him to become chair. “You got to admire him,” Duckett added.
Duckett, a Winston-Salem businessman, also once harbored ambitions to be board chair. Like Davis, he jeopardized his chances by immersing himself in difficult issues of race and history.
Early in his term, Duckett’s extensive legwork helped lead to the renaming of a campus building. He also prominently backed removing the pedestal that once elevated “Silent Sam,” which eliminated any chance that the Confederate monument would return to the highly visible spot on campus where it stood for more than 100 years.
In recent weeks, Duckett has been in the spotlight in an unwelcomed way. It was he who held up the tenure request for Hannah-Jones in January.
Duckett said he sent an email to Provost Bob Blouin saying he had questions about the tenure request. He copied Guskiewicz and Richard Stevens, chair of the trustees, on the email.
“I didn’t know how the Knight Foundation chairs [at the journalism school] work,” Duckett told The Assembly of his concerns. “I had all these questions. It didn’t have anything to do with the 1619 Project.”
Duckett said he never heard back. The next thing he knew, the journalism school announced Hannah-Jones had agreed to a five-year contract. Duckett said he thought at the time that everyone was happy and the matter was settled.
Blouin told The Assembly that as a general practice, he addressed faculty personnel matters in closed sessions of the board. “I was prepared to do that in January, but the item was postponed,” he wrote in a text message.
He said Susan King, dean of the journalism school, was concerned that a delay could jeopardize the university’s ability to hire Hannah-Jones. “Under this time-sensitivity, she and I arrived at an alternative plan,” he wrote. “At that point, no further action was required by the Board regarding her hiring.”
King told The Assembly that it wasn’t her idea to offer Hannah-Jones the five-year contract but that she supported the plan from Blouin and Guskiewicz. “I thought it was a bold action,” she said.
It did not settle the matter. When NC Policy Watch broke the news in May that Hannah-Jones had not received tenure, as her predecessors had, many supporters of Hannah-Jones viewed Duckett as the culprit. Last week, Duckett voted to grant Hannah-Jones tenure, and said he had hoped she would come to UNC-CH and be a great professor.
He said he didn’t say more about the matter previously because he was advised by lawyers not to. “The university should have put out better information at the time,” Duckett said. “I don’t think we were transparent enough.”
He said he was stung by the criticism. “Race and gender never had anything to do with my questions,” Duckett said. “Never. Anyone who knows me knows that isn’t me.”
Deborah Stroman, a former chair of the Carolina Black Caucus, is a friend of Duckett’s. She said she was surprised to read that Duckett had held up the tenure request and wished Duckett had called her to discuss it.
“What I’ve found oftentimes, when we talk about matters that are very, very challenging to us as a nation and especially things that are about racial equity, is that many white leaders don’t reach out to people of color,” Stroman said.
Duckett said he regretted not calling Stroman but added that he did consult with a diverse group on whether Hannah-Jones should be granted tenure.
Last week, as the vote neared on Hannah-Jones’ tenure, Berger, the top Senate Republican, made a rare public statement about the university, leveling a blast directly at the UNC-CH chancellor’s office.
Berger, a Republican from Eden widely considered one of the two most influential state politicians (along with Gov. Roy Cooper), has consistently downplayed his influence on the UNC System. But Carolina loyalists fear Berger and say he’s a master at covering his tracks.
The News & Observer had approached the Senate leader for comment, following the newspaper’s report that David Routh, the university’s chief fundraiser, had a three-hour-a-week consulting gig with a Charlotte-based investment firm.
Berger said the university’s approval of Routh’s outside work was part of a pattern of poor management, including the academic-athletic scandal that dragged on for years and the recent disclosure of a $100 million structural deficit.
“It looks to me that we have a flagship that’s rudderless,” Berger told The N&O. “The fact that the chancellor apparently doesn’t see [the appearance of a conflict of interest] is a problem.”
Routh told The Assembly he has dropped the consulting role—but Berger’s comments struck fear in university leaders, past and present, who wondered if it was the opening salvo of more direct scrutiny and criticism of Guskiewicz. The chancellor, who, though criticized, remains popular on campus, first began the job in an interim capacity in 2019.
In countering Berger’s criticism, Guskiewicz might have found an unexpected ally.
Harry Smith, a hard-driving and controversial East Carolina University graduate and Greenville businessman, chaired the UNC System Board of Governors in 2018-19. Last Tuesday, he sent a blistering email to UNC System President Peter Hans and UNC System Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey, copying in Berger. The email was obtained by The Assembly.
“The comment from Phil Berger to the N and O was grossly inappropriate on UNC CH being ‘rudderless,’” Smith wrote. “If UNC CH is rudderless I challenge my good friend to look at the other schools in the UNC System and their performance—the facts are the facts and the absolute fact is UNC CH is a top performer.
Screenshot of an email from former Board of Governors Chair Harry Smith, June 29, 2021
“When you have an asset the size and magnitude of UNC CH [you’re] going to have issues to work through,” Smith wrote, “and when the assets [are] as important as this asset is to the state then you work through them in the best interest of keeping the asset healthy. [A]ttacking them I don’t see where that helps any at all.”
Smith said leaders need to make decisions based on facts, and said UNC-Chapel Hill performed well on key metrics, such as retention rate, graduation rate, acceptance rate, federal funding, athletics, and fundraising. “Trend lines matter,” he wrote. “Look at UNC CH’s trend lines for the last 30 years in every metric—incredibly impressive.”
Near the end of the eight-paragraph email, Smith wrote, “In my humble opinion Phil you owe the folks at UNC CH, Peter Hans and Randy Ramsey an apology.”
Screenshot of an email from former Board of Governors Chair Harry Smith, June 29, 2021
Smith was known for his aggressive, elbows-out style when he served as board chair and, at times, was accused of micromanaging.
In the email, Smith pointed out that Republicans have had control of appointments to the UNC System Board of Governors and the UNC-CH Board of Trustees for a decade. In an interview with The Assembly, Smith said, “I don’t understand why any legislator would want to get involved, with two layers of oversight, unless you don’t trust the people you appointed.”
Smith, who Berger recruited to the Board of Governors, said he “worked very hard” to keep legislators away from the UNC System. “I had very limited communication with the legislature,” he said. “That was by design. You have to let governance work.”
Through a spokesperson, Berger declined to respond to Smith’s comments.
Smith’s criticism of Berger reflects how Republicans are divided when it comes to the direction of the university system. Nowhere is the division more evident than in Chapel Hill. Does the first state university need cosmetic changes or structural ones? Is the university an asset to be protected or a problem in need of disruption?
Since Republicans took control of the legislature in 2011, the UNC System has had four different presidents. (One was an interim president who served for 19 months.)
After UNC System Board of Governors Chair John Fennebresque, a Republican, led the removal of President Tom Ross, a Democrat, in 2015, Fennebresque said, “We want a change agent, but we don’t know the specifics of what we want to change.” Six years later, that lack of a united, detailed agenda for change appears to remain.
Gene Davis wasn’t the first trustee to lose board support while engaging on a controversial issue. A few years earlier, Duckett charted a similar path.
In 2014, Duckett was one of two UNC-CH trustees tasked with researching William L. Saunders, a prominent alumnus and Confederate colonel for whom Saunders Hall had been named when it opened in 1922. Historians had long identified Saunders as a leader in the Ku Klux Klan, and for years student groups pushed to rename the building.
Duckett, a 1982 graduate, threw himself into the task. He and trustee Alston Gardner spent hundreds of hours researching the matter, filling up a 400-page notebook with learnings from more than 200 interviews—including with human rights activist Desmond Tutu, civil rights leader John Lewis, and Hubert Davis, now UNC’s head basketball coach.
In the spring of 2015, Duckett and Gardner led a wide-ranging Board of Trustees meeting on the renaming, hearing from student activists, historians and journalists, and conservatives and liberals. The meeting featured sharp critiques but collegial remarks.
“Thank you for meeting us halfway,” said Taylor Webber-Fields, an organizer with the student-led Real Silent Sam Coalition. “We really do appreciate it and we do want to acknowledge that this has been an effort on both sides, both students and leadership.”
Duckett kept digging to learn more about Saunders. He and other researchers turned to the UNC-CH trustee board minutes from a hundred years ago when the building was named after Saunders. Listed as one of the reasons to honor Saunders: He had been a Klan leader.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Duckett said. “When you say someone is head of the KKK and that’s an attribute, then the trustees in 1920 erred. I said that’s unacceptable. The name has to come down.”
The board voted in 2015 to remove the Saunders name from the building. Sallie Shuping-Russell, who was then a trustee, credits Duckett’s work for leading to that decision.
“To me, that’s a good example of who Chuck is,” said Shuping-Russell, a Democrat from Chapel Hill. She was bothered when some people portrayed Duckett as hostile to Hannah-Jones. “He’s a great trustee,” she said. “He does his homework. He dots his i’s and crosses his t’s, which is what I think he was trying to do. I’ve seen so many times when he sided with the right side on race.”
After Silent Sam was toppled in 2018 by protestors, then-Chancellor Carol Folt had to decide what to do with the statue and the pedestal. Some members of the UNC System Board of Governors hoped for the monument’s return. Duckett, then the vice chair, was among three trustees who signed a statement supporting Folt’s removal of the pedestal.
UNC-CH Board of Trustees member Chuck Duckett pictured before the June 30 vote on Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure // Photo by Ira Wilder, The Daily Tar Heel
Six months later, Duckett sought the board chairmanship and lost. He’d been endorsed by the previous board, but the new board was 7-6 against him, Duckett said. He withdrew, giving former state Sen. Richard Stevens, a Cary Republican and former Wake County manager, the chairmanship unanimously.
“There is no doubt that signing that letter cost Chuck Duckett being chair,” Davis said. “That’s exactly why he was not elected chair. That is the only reason. He had earned it.”
Stevens, who became chair in 2019 and whose tenure as chair just ended, said he did not seek the position. “I’ll be blunt about it—I didn’t run for chair,” he said. “I was approached by a majority of the board asking me to serve as chair of the board. I reluctantly agreed.” Trustees told him his prior experience as board chair (he served from 1997 to 1999) would be needed.
Duckett says Berger, and Tom Fetzer, the former Raleigh mayor who was then on the UNC System Board of Governors, lobbied board members against him. “I have witnesses,” Duckett said. He declined to name them.
Fetzer said he did not lobby against Duckett. “I made no calls against Duckett,” he said. “It didn’t happen.”
Pat Ryan, a spokesperson for Berger, said the senator did not contact trustees on the matter. “As far as we know, no representative of Sen. Berger contacted trustees to urge them to not vote for Duckett either,” Ryan wrote in an email, “and Sen. Berger did not authorize any representative to do so.”
Asked if Berger would endorse a candidate for board chair this month, Ryan wrote that it depends on who the candidates are. “If there is somebody put forward who Sen. Berger believes would be the best person for the job, Sen. Berger may share his opinion, as presumably any number of interested stakeholders would.”
When UNC-CH trustees elect a new chair this month, without some major shift, it won’t be Gene Davis.
“If Gene was on track to be chair and him taking the position he took [on tenure for Hannah-Jones] knocked him out of being chair, I think that’s unfortunate,” said Smith, the former UNC System Board of Governors chair. “If you want to address tenure, and I think it should be, then address it with an overarching policy, not targeting individuals [who] don’t meet your political and ideological views.”
Stevens, the outgoing UNC-CH trustees chair, considers Davis one of the best trustees he’s served with in his 12 years on the board. “He’d make an excellent chairman,” Stevens said. “I don’t get a vote, and I won’t try to persuade them. That’s their call.”
As the turbulent meeting ended last week at the Carolina Inn, Davis wanted to end the day on a high note, and spoke of the lofty qualities of democracy once lauded by UNC’s most famous leaders, Frank Porter Graham and Bill Friday.
The board had endured false claims and been called unpleasant names, he told his colleagues, and its commitment to its highest principles had been wrongly questioned.
“We embrace and endorse academic freedom, open and rigorous debate and scholarly inquiry, constructive disagreement—all of which are grounded in the virtue of listening to each other,” said Davis, who wore a dark suit, a light-blue-and-white shirt, and a crisply knotted Carolina tie.
Carolina was not a place to cancel people or ideas, he said, nor was it a place for judging people and calling them “woke” or “racist.” The university was better than that.
A few hours later, after the heat had given way, he left the Carolina Inn and walked alone to his car, head bowed, in the darkness along Cameron Avenue toward the Old Well.
Tuesday morning, shortly after Hannah-Jones made her announcement, a group of journalism faculty released a scathing statement supporting her and denouncing the process.
“What comes next,” they wrote, “is up to us.”
John Drescher, The Assembly’s contributing editor, is a former executive editor of The News & Observer and a former editor at The Washington Post.
Disclosures: Drescher is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and a longtime financial donor to its journalism school. He and Nikole Hannah-Jones were colleagues earlier in her career when she worked at The N&O. He and Gene Davis attend the same church in Raleigh.