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Gov. Cooper's commission proposes changes to UNC System boards

Liz Schlemmer
Gov. Roy Cooper speaks at the governor's mansion in Raleigh on Monday, June 12. He announced recommendations from the Commission on the Governance of Public Universities, a group convened by Cooper to evaluate appointments to the UNC System board of governors and university trustees.

A commission gathered by Governor Roy Cooper has released its recommendations to reform UNC System governance.

Cooper convened the Commission on the Governance of Public Universities last November and charged it with evaluating board appointments to the UNC System board of governors and university trustees.

On Monday, Cooper hosted a press conference at the governor's mansion to announce their recommendations.

"We have built the most amazing public university system in the country," Cooper said, "Yet it is obvious that erosion is occurring because of the makeup of the UNC Board of Governors and boards of trustees, that has become more political, and has begun exercising more direct control in the administration of our campuses."

The UNC System board has, for example, passed a policy prohibiting compelled speech in university hiring seen by critics as targeting diversity initiatives, and the UNC-Chapel Hill Trustees approved a new School of Civic Life and Leadership at the university without typical faculty involvement.

Cooper called out a lack of diversity on the boards that made these decisions.

"Although there are good people who care deeply about our universities now serving, it's clear that university leaders should reflect more of who we are as North Carolinians," Cooper said.

Most members of the UNC System Board of Governors are white, male and Republican. State lawmakers appoint the Board of Governors, who in turn approve a majority of the trustees to university boards.

The commission wants to increase the size of all those boards and give the governor four new appointments to each university's board of trustees and give the minority party in the General Assembly four new appointments to the UNC Board of Governors. State lawmakers would not lose any appointments.

The WUNC Politics Podcast is a free-flowing discussion of what we're hearing in the back hallways of the General Assembly and on the campaign trail across North Carolina.

The full recommendations include a proposal for a center of higher education governance at the UNC System and a waiting period for lobbyists and lawmakers to join a higher education board.

Former UNC System Presidents Tom Ross, a Democrat, and Margaret Spellings, a Republican, sat on the commission. They said the recommendations are for after Cooper leaves office.

"It is important that Governor Cooper has embraced these recommendations, not because they benefit him, but because they can stand the test of time, however the political winds blow," Spellings said.

Spellings was president of the UNC System when the legislature voted to shrink the Board of Governors in 2017. Democratic state lawmakers argued then it would hurt the board's diversity.

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

Cooper said he would be willing to negotiate with Republican leaders over recent bills to reduce his appointments to other state boards to get them to consider these recommendations.

"If that is a way to do it, then certainly we are willing to talk about it," Cooper said.

Lawmakers have argued other boards appointed primarily by the governor, such as the board of community colleges and the board of elections, need more diversity of thought. Cooper said it should be the same in higher education, but the General Assembly has long held all the appointments to the UNC System Board of Governors.

But only the Republican-dominated General Assembly can take action on the commission's suggestions. Senate leader Phil Berger said at a press conference later the same day that he had not yet read the recommendations, but that the General Assembly would only consider them if they align with the state constitution.

The state constitution reads: "The General Assembly shall provide for the selection of trustees of The University of North Carolina and of the other institutions of higher education."

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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