After eight months of meetings with numerous stakeholders, the bipartisan Governor’s Commission on Public University Governance in North Carolina issued a comprehensive report with seven recommendations that would transform the structure, diversity, and transparency of public higher education leadership throughout the state. 

Roy Cooper
Roy Cooper

The 15-member commission was created by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in November to address concerns that the University of North Carolina (UNC) system’s Board of Governors (BOG) did not fully represent the racial, geographic, and political diversity of the state and that politics are impacting policies and appointments throughout the system. 

The commission’s recommendations come amid political battles in a multitude of conservative-led states, most notably Florida and Texas, over restructuring university leadership in Republicans’ favor. The politicization of these positions has, in certain instances, led to the defunding of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts and attacks on the tenure process for faculty.

The Need for Change

“There are signs of trouble that come when all of the appointed leaders are chosen by too few – signs of undue political influence, bureaucratic meddling, and singularity of political thought,” Cooper said in a press conference announcing the commission’s formation. 

Tom Ross
Tom Ross

If accepted by state lawmakers, the recommendations would have a significant impact on how UNC System leaders are chosen. Currently, BOG members are elected by a majority vote in the legislature, which has been led by Republicans for the past 10 years. Those BOG members then determine appointments of presidents, chancellors, and Board of Trustees (BOT) members at individual institutions within the UNC system. The commission’s recommendations would ensure that university leadership is more representative of the
state’s population.

Margaret Spellings
Margaret Spellings

“While our state is rich in all types of diversity, that diversity and that strength is not reflected in our governance today in the manner contemplated by existing state law,” reads a letter from the commission’s co-chairs, Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings, both of whom are UNC system past presidents.

Commission Recommendations

First among the commission’s suggestions is the creation of a new Center of Higher Education Governance, which would be responsible for promoting good governance principles in higher education and assisting the systemwide and institutional boards in enhancing governance practices in North Carolina. 

“These recommendations represent common sense reforms that will help ensure our universities and governance fully represent those who attend, are served by, and who support through their tax dollars these critical institutions.”

Margaret Spellings

The center’s leadership would be tasked with developing programs and classes pertaining to higher education governance for students and the public, recommending policies regarding ethical behavior and conflicts of interest, and drafting annual reports on the demographic makeup of the system’s governing bodies. The commission also proposed that the center institute a partisan advisory board with appointments from the governor and General Assembly, which is Republican-led.

Two of the commission’s recommendations focus on expanding the BOG and each institution’s trustee board, in part to enhance geographic diversity. Under the proposal, the BOG would increase from 24 to 32 members, with 16 selected at large and two chosen from each of North Carolina’s eight Prosperity Zones. 

Changes to institutional BOTs would involve expanding them to 15 members, seven of whom would be selected by the BOG; four would be selected by the governor, and four by the General Assembly under guidelines giving the majority party more seat selections. 

The fifth proposal would increase the terms of both boards from four to eight years but limit members to one full term. 

Further suggestions from the commission focus on improving transparency and accountability and reducing conflicts of interest, such as livestreaming and recording meetings and holding them in accessible locations with prior public notice. 

What’s Next

If the guidelines are accepted, the current and future legislative leadership would not lose any appointments and the governor’s appointments would not take effect until January 2025. All other proposed changes would be implemented immediately. 

“These recommendations represent common sense reforms that will help ensure our universities and governance fully represent those who attend, are served by, and who support through their tax dollars these critical institutions,” says Spellings.

This article was published in our September 2023 issue.