Tensions Rise Within the UNC System Board of Governors

Randy Ramsey has earned a reputation for running the UNC System Board of Governors with a strong hand, focused on calm, public unity in his role as chair. But under the surface, tensions are growing. 

In a Monday email to Ramsey, Board of Governors member Art Pope made that friction explicit. 

“I am dismayed to learn that as Chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, you knew in advance of the state budget Appropriations Act special provision to require the UNC System Offices to relocate to downtown Raleigh ... and never informed or brought this issue before the UNC Board of Governors for study, discussion, a vote or other action.”

That email, part of a flurry of back and forth between three dissenting Board of Governors members and System leadership, illustrates both frustration at policy and process, as well as revealing lessons on how power is wielded within the UNC System. 

The Assembly requested the emails, which are all public records, from Pope this week, and he provided them. The emails are published in full at the end of this article.

Pope, along with board member and former state House Majority Leader Leo Daughtry and board member and former state Rep. John Fraley, strongly protested the exclusion of the Board of Governors in the decision to move the UNC System’s headquarters to Raleigh, which is estimated to cost up to $100 million.

In particular, they objected to wording in the state budget that mandates the System Office move to an interim space in Raleigh by the end of 2022. 

“Needless to say, the 2017 UNC Board of Governors and Task Force did not recommend a relocation to Raleigh, in part because of the disruption and cost of such a move,” Pope wrote in his email to Ramsey. 

“Yet despite this previous study and conclusion by the UNC Board of Governors, you, as our current Chairman, supported the $100 Million Raleigh Move without ever informing the full UNC Board of Governors about such a move, much less bringing it forth as an issue for consideration by the Board,” continued Pope.

Ramsey, in an prior, emailed response, told the dissenting board members that he had spoken to Senator Berger and “it was clear he had no intention of changing direction on this decision.”  

Phil Berger, the Republican state Senate Leader, has previously told The Assembly that a System Office move to Raleigh, and the construction of a shared space for the UNC System Office and the Community College System, could be a precursor to an organizational merger of the two higher education institutions. 

The internal fight illustrated by the email exchange is just one manifestation of internal tension over how the Board of Governors is run. The twenty-four member board is appointed entirely by the Legislature; Pope, Daughtry, Fraley, and Ramsey, along with the vast majority of the Board, are all Republicans.

Pope, a powerful funder of conservative causes and a former legislator himself, concluded his email to Ramsey with a call for change. 

“I hope as Chairman you will reconsider your position about informing and bringing major matters to the full UNC Board of Governors for consideration and action in general,” Pope wrote, “and as soon as practical in regard to the $100 Million Raleigh Move of the UNC System Office.”

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For years, there has been conversation about moving the System Office from its current location in Chapel Hill. The Spangler building, an 80,000 square foot building first built in 1971, had become too small to house the full System Office, which also had additional staff less than 2 miles down the road at the Center for School Leadership and Development (CSLD) building. 

A 2017 Board of Governors task force concluded, in part, that “there is not a clear reason for General Administration to relocate, particularly if it is costly.” General Administration is the old name for what is now called the UNC System Office. 

During the pandemic, the System Office began a move from the Spangler building to an expanded footprint at CSLD. The last employee left the Spangler building in November and all System Office employees are now working either remotely or out of CSLD. 

Language in the state budget, which was approved in November, mandates that the System Office move to a leased interim facility in Raleigh by the end of 2022, and then again to a new building once it has been designed and constructed. 

Pope, in an earlier email to Ramsey, voiced concern about the consequences of multiple moves. 

“It would be very costly and disruptive for the UNC System Offices to move three times in three or four years, first to the Center; then ‘lease’ space in Raleigh for several years; and, then move again to a yet to be studied and designed space in the state government complex in downtown Raleigh,” he wrote on Nov. 24. 

Harry Smith, a former Chair of the Board of Governors, was Vice Chair in 2017 when a Board of Governors task force considered the move and ultimately decided against it. 

“We took an in-depth look at it and worked in a very measured, meaningful, and thorough way and the task force came away with the conclusion that it was absolutely not worth the expense nor the effort to move,” Smith told The Assembly. He noted that the “time, energy and effort” to make the move would distract leadership from other “core work” that needed to be done.  

“And it’s my understanding that this [latest decision] was not a Board process, and that’s disappointing as well because to get a good outcome, you need to have a thorough process and utilize the entire board to ensure that everybody has their differing views and opinion and you get to the right decision,” Smith said.

“What you’re seeing, in my strong opinion, is unfortunate, but I think Randy [Ramsey] is more taking directives from Jones Street versus challenging them on what he needs to.”

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Statutorily, the question of who is calling the shots is clear. 

“Everyone clearly understands the legislature has the authority and responsibility of ‘maintenance and management’ of the University System,” wrote Board of Governors member John Fraley to Ramsey on Nov. 26. 

“Our questions really boil down to how was this vetted, what was vetted, who was involved, how were timelines determined, why wasn’t the full Board of Governors included or kept informed as was done previously and why many had to learn about this by reading the budget or articles in the press?”

In response, Ramsey replied that the process was led by the legislature: “I was made aware, and asked about my general opinion, but as far as I know there were no BOG members involved in the process of estimating the cost or when it would happen.”

Ramsey noted that “original language said we would move the system by Dec. 31 of this year,” and that Ramsey asked for a change “since I didn’t think it would be possible.”

Ramsey, in a previous email to Pope, made clear he worried about pushing back on the legislature. 

“Even though it is against my better judgment, I will reach out to Sen. Berger and Speaker Moore over the Thanksgiving Holiday to share your, Leo and John’s opinions on the move,” wrote Ramsey. “... I am concerned it might be unwise to imply the legislature was thoughtless or impulsive given all they did to accommodate the system and individual campuses funding requests and policy changes in this budget.”

Pope was blunt in his own response:

“You stated in your November 24th email to me that you were concerned for the UNC Board of Governors now to take a position on this issue would ‘imply that the Legislature was thoughtless or impulsive’ and that ‘their decisions on this issue are wrong.’

“As a former legislator, please let me assure you that this will not be the first time or the last time that the Legislature learns, after the passage of a bill, that there is more than one position on the legislation within the affected institutions, various constituencies, and general public. 

“This is even more true where the special provision appeared for the first time in the budget conference report, without previously being considered and included in either the Senate or House versions of the bill. 

“And it is definitely true in this case where the Legislature did not have the benefit of knowing what the position and reasoning of the UNC Board of Governors was on this issue, because you, as Chairman, did not inform the Board about this special provision and even now still refuse to present the issue of the $100 Million Raleigh Move to the Board.”

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Top: UNC System Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey // Photo Courtesy of Carolina Coast Online; Bottom: UNC System Board Member Art Pope // Photo by Chris Seward, AP Photo

The relationship between the UNC System Board of Governors and Republican legislative leaders is murky. Critics say legislative leaders subtly influence the Board and are eager for more dramatic changes. 

In July, Ramsey told The Assembly, “in the last five months, I think I've spoken to Senator Berger twice, both were matters about the budget.”

Berger struck a similar tone of distance this summer, when The Assembly asked him about relationships with Board of Governors members. 

“They have access to information that I don't have. They have the focus on the issues at hand that I do not. And if we've done a good job of picking the right people, they will make good decisions,” he said. 

“They may be decisions I disagree with and they may turn out not to be such good decisions, but that's the way the system works,” he continued. “If every decision that gets made in the university system has to have my okay or Speaker Moore's okay, that's, to me, a clear example of dysfunction.”

The debate about a System Office move, however, suggests that conversations at the Board level, where such “focus on the issues at hand” could be brought to bear, aren’t always happening. 

Berger’s spokesperson, Pat Ryan, pushed back on that characterization, saying there’s a difference between big picture strategic shifts, and regular university operations. 

“Sen. Berger has said for a while now that he does not manage, nor does he wish to manage, the day-to-day operation of university governance,” Ryan wrote in an email to The Assembly. “Deciding where an agency will be located for decades to come is not a day-to-day operation of university governance.”

Ramsey, contacted for comment through a UNC System Office spokesperson, did not respond before publication. 

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Another question that has gone undiscussed by the Board is the Senate Leader’s stated desire to ultimately merge the UNC System and Community College System, an intention first reported by The Assembly in early November. 

In the hours after that article’s publication, Thomas Stith, the President of the Community College System, sent an email to all 58 community college presidents.

“I felt it was important to make you aware that this potential restructuring concept has been made public," he wrote in the email obtained by the news site EdNC. "I will continue to monitor any developments and keep you informed."

After his note was published, his team pushed back against the implication that he was confirming a merger. “President Stith’s email to ‘Presidents’ and his response that we provided to you this evening in no way confirms a merger,” his team wrote to EdNC. “We have not been consulted by the General Assembly on these speculative plans.”

President Hans did respond, during The Assembly’s reporting process, to Berger’s comments on a merger. He neither ruled out the possibility nor embraced it, but instead noted the difficulty of such a transformation.

“If we were starting the university system and the community college system from scratch—today, 2021—it would look different,” Hans told The Assembly at the time. “But the amount of investment—and I'm talking not just financial investment, but emotional investment—is not something to be taken lightly.”

Following the article’s publication, there has been no formal correspondence to the Board of Governors on the issue. And at the Nov. 18 Board of Governors meeting, there was likewise no mention or discussion of the merger, or the move to Raleigh. 

No leader is required, or even expected, to respond to every news report. But the lack of Board-wide conversation on a newly public, consequential development, is striking. 

In his original email on Nov. 24, Pope pointed to a technical corrections bill as a potential way to give more flexibility over the move of the UNC System Offices by changing “shall” to “may” in the legislative text.

“It is my understanding that the technical corrections bill is currently being drafted, and may be voted on by the Legislature as early as the Monday evening session, November 29, 2021,” wrote Pope. 

He continued: “So it is imperative that we act now. Will you as Chairman, and President Hans, please act on your own initiative to request this change? Will you call a formal or informal session of the UNC Board of Governors on Monday afternoon to discuss this change or other alternatives?”

Emails went back and forth, Ramsey made contact with legislative leaders, but Monday came and went without a Board of Governors meeting. 

This week, the General Assembly passed a technical corrections bill. It included a change to the specifications of exactly where the System Office may lease temporary space, but not to the mandate that it must happen by the end of 2022. 

On Tuesday night, Berger’s office issued a statement that spoke to the finality with which his office views the issue. 

“We’re not going to comment on the gossip and innuendo about where a building will be located,” wrote Ryan.

“The UNC System will soon be based in Raleigh because it is where the rest of the state's education administration is located,” he continued. “Hopefully some efficiencies can be realized and collaboration among different agencies can be increased if they're in closer proximity to one another.”

The General Assembly is now adjourned until January. 

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A November 29, 2021 email from UNC System Board of Governors member Art Pope to higher education and political leaders

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A November 26, 2021 exchange between UNC System Board of Governors member John Fraley and Board Chair Randy Ramsey

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A November 24, 2021 exchange between UNC System Board of Governors member Art Pope and Board Chair Randy Ramsey.

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Kyle Villemain is editor-in-chief of The Assembly*. Contact him at Kyle@TheAssemblyNC.com*