For more than a decade, supporters of the state’s public universities have searched for a response to what they see as the micromanagement and politicization of the 17-institution UNC System. 

It’s a slow-burning debate that has played out for years across a complicated structure of governing boards that the legislature appoints. 

But this week, Gov. Roy Cooper signaled a willingness to negotiate with Republicans over appointment authority for a wide range of statewide boards—from education to elections and beyond—that could open the door for a compromise on higher education.  

Cooper’s comments came in an exclusive interview with The Assembly as his bipartisan commission on higher education governance prepared to release its recommendations this afternoon. 

“Slight adjustments in the way leadership is appointed can make a significant difference in the results that are achieved,” Cooper told The Assembly. “We have built the most amazing public university system in the country, and it still is … but it is obvious that erosion is occurring because the makeup of the UNC Board of Governors and Boards of Trustees has become more political and has begun exercising more direct control in the administration of our campuses.”

Cooper announced the commission in November and put two former UNC System presidents, Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings, at its helm. But it was almost immediately dismissed; a top Republican aide deemed it “dead on arrival.” The governor has little direct influence on higher education, and few expected the legislature to be receptive to calls for it to voluntarily relinquish appointment power. 

But as the General Assembly is considering legislation to remove or alter gubernatorial appointments at other boards, including the state board of transportation, boards of election, and the state’s community college board, Cooper told The Assembly that he believes similar underlying principles could be applied to the UNC System.

“Sen. [Phil] Berger has said that balancing the membership of those unelected boards would increase the viewpoints on the boards by diversifying the appointing authorities,” said Cooper, referring to the Senate’s top Republican leader. 

“That’s something that Sen. Berger has mentioned was important in what is happening with those other boards that make critical decisions in the administration of government. I think the same applies even more starkly to our UNC System.”

Would the governor be open to a compromise on appointment authority and membership at those other boards, should there be a larger discussion that includes the UNC System?

“Yes, as long as we stay within the bounds of the Constitution,” Cooper replied. “I would hope that this would be a part of the mix in this appointments discussion.”

On Monday morning, Berger announced a press conference introducing legislation to reform the state elections board for 2:30pm – around an hour after Cooper’s press conference on higher education is expected to conclude. 

The commission’s higher education recommendations are relatively mild and incremental. 

They include a host of ideas to improve geographic, political, racial, and gender diversity at the System-wide Board of Governors and each university’s Board of Trustees. 

They also recommend enlarging the Board of Governors to 32 or 36 members to allow for better balance, requiring half its appointments to be spread equally across eight geographic regions, providing the minority party in the General Assembly some appointment power, and restoring some appointment power to the executive branch.

“This is not like a corporate board,” said co-chair Ross. “This is a policy-setting board for institutions that serve 11 million people, and it needs to have broad based backgrounds and experiences.”

“The board should reflect the richness and the diversity in the population of the great Old North State and when you look at the data it just clearly doesn’t,” said co-chair Spellings.

She pointed to N.C. State’s trustees, where the only woman among its 13 members is rotating off this year. “Is it right to have, in 2023, an all-male Board of Trustees for the system’s largest institution at N.C. State?”

Gov. Roy Cooper appears with former University of North Carolina system presidents Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings at a November 2022 news conference announcing the Commission on the Future of Public Universities. (AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson)

But the focus on diversity has cost the commission some support. House Majority leader John Bell, a prominent Republican legislator, surprised observers in November when he joined the Commission despite his party’s critique of the announcement.

He quickly disengaged from the process, telling The Assembly Sunday that he has not seen the final recommendations. Bell, who missed the first meeting but reviewed the minutes, said in a March interview with The Assembly that he was “disappointed in the [focus on] diversity and inclusion and wokeness and power grabs and personal political agendas that I had read in the minutes.” 

“The governor has some concerns, and frankly I do too, about diversity of thought in the [university] process and what the future of our university system holds and I agree with that,” said Bell.

Bell, who decided not to attend subsequent meetings, pointed to enrollment declines, financial issues, and competitive pressures for the state’s universities as among his top priorities. “That’s what I’m concerned about, and in our conversation I voiced that to the governor. And it’s just the commission took a different approach more focused on racially selecting board members etc. and that’s just not what I want to be included on.”

Cooper pushed back on Bell’s portrayal of the commission: “I think our discussion was as much about political diversity on the board to make sure that we had a way that more points of view were put in place and I think this commission does that … I don’t see how those other issues are involved here.”

The commission’s final recommendations have a broader scope than racial diversity in governing boards, and its report hedges its more political recommendations. The recommendation to restore certain appointment powers to the governor would not start until 2025, after Cooper has left office, and would be in addition to existing legislative appointments.

The co-chairs have significant experience in writing bipartisan policy. Ross led an attempt to enact compromise redistricting reform in North Carolina in 2020, and Spellings, a former U.S. Secretary of Education, is the new CEO of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. 

“I think people will read it and consider it,” said Spellings, when asked about its likely reception. “I do think we have, and [commission member and former Rep.] John Fraley certainly helped with this, tried to be respectful of the General Assembly’s authority and primacy and not take anything away from them.”

While the push to restore gubernatorial appointment powers is a long shot, other recommendations may better fit the legislative mood. 

For instance, the General Assembly is already considering a bill to enlarge the Board of Governors from 24 to 28 members. The commission calls for the board to grow to up to 36. 

Perhaps the most plausible short-term recommendation is unrelated to the appointment process: creating a Center of Higher Education Governance to provide data, training, and support for board members. 

Insufficiently prepared board members are a longtime gripe of both university staff and the board members themselves. Some board members say staff wield too much power when they control what information and data boards receive. And some staff say board members don’t understand the nuances of a complex university. 

Whether the commission’s recommendations move forward largely depends on Republicans agreeing that the governance system needs a course correction. 

Many Republicans are happy to defend their track record on higher education, even if some privately admit that the governance battles have become too caustic. 

They point to the successful roll-out of a consequential tuition subsidy program called NC Promise that helped turn around or strengthen several regional and minority-serving institutions. They’ve held tuition flat for seven years while making investments in online learning and a potentially massive investment this year in university research endeavors. And they’re proud to have disrupted a university bureaucracy that they say has gotten comfortable and bloated. 

But others, including some Republicans, say the chaos outweighs the gains, noting the seemingly constant array of high-profile fights. 

At UNC-Chapel Hill, the removal of a confederate statue, the politicized elimination of certain centers and institutes, the bungled non-appointment of Nikole Hannah-Jones. Across the system, a messy series of contested chancellor selections at UNC Wilmington, Fayetteville State University, East Carolina University, and Western Carolina University. And a general worry about declining enrollment, faculty retention, and minority faculty retention alongside a host of smaller funding disputes. 

In the end, the commission may just mean reformers have a ready-made plan for a more-amenable legislature. 

Among the report’s recommendations: 

  • Center on Governance: The creation of a Center of Higher Education Governance to support and provide training to board members and research higher-ed governance, as well as maintain a database of trained, interested individuals including their qualifications, skills, and experience.
  • A Larger Board of Governors: Increasing the size of the Board of Governors from 24 members to 32 or 36, with half of its members elected at-large and half elected equally from across eight different geographic regions. 
  • K-12 and Community Colleges: Including a number of ex-officio members at the Board of Governors, including the state superintendent and the president of the community colleges or their designee.
  • Minority Party Appointments: Allowing each chamber of the General Assembly to elect 12 members of the Board of Governors by the majority party, and 4 members by the minority party.
  • Gubernatorial Appointments at Campuses: Enlarging campus boards of trustees, restoring several gubernatorial appointments to those boards, and adding non-voting faculty and staff appointments to each board. The addition of the gubernatorial appointments is recommended to begin in 2025. 
  • Longer Terms + Term Limits: Increasing term length for members from four to eight years, but limiting members to just one term on any particular governing board (i.e. eight years on a BOT does not preclude eight years on the BOG).
  • “Cooling-Off” Period: A one-year waiting period for any member of the General Assembly or registered lobbyist who wants to join a governing board. 

Kyle Villemain is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Assembly. He is a former speechwriter who grew up in the Triangle and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill.

Disclosure: Villemain previously worked at the UNC System including during Margaret Spellings’ tenure as president.

Additional reporting by Jeffrey Billman.