© 2024 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Former county commissioner Woody White discusses appointment to UNC Board of Governors

Woody White is now a member of the 24-person Board of Governors, overseeing North Carolina’s public university system, a quarter-million students, and almost 50,000 employees. White previously served on UNCW’s Board of Trustees, but resigned in protest over the University’s inequitable treatment of conservative thought — an issue he says is still at the forefront of the system as a whole.

Last week, the General Assembly approved Woody White’s appointment to the Board of Governors. White replaces Thom Goolsby, whose term ends this summer.

White is a Wilmington-based defense attorney who served two terms on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, including four years as chairman. He also served in the North Carolina Senate after being appointed to fill a vacant seat in 2004.

White was appointed to the UNCW Board of Trustees in 2018. He resigned three years later. At the time, White drew a disapproving contrast between the treatment of liberal and conservative faculty when it came to First Amendment cases — something he tied to what he saw as the broader issue of diversity of thought.

Related: Woody White Blasts UNCW After Resigning As Trustee (Wilmington Business Journal)

White’s appointment comes as the UNC system is facing internal and external pressure over a host of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity efforts and the perceived liberal bias of the institution.

Earlier this year, UNC Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees voted to create a School for Civic Life and Leadership, an institution intended to help promote conservative thought — catching faculty, who usually have a role in new curricula and schools, off-guard and almost immediately garnering applause from the Wall Street Journal editorial board. At the same time, the system’s Board of Governors voted to remove questions about personal beliefs from student and employee applications, viewed by conservatives as a victory over DEI overreach.

And, just last week, the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Committee on Governmental Operations requested detailed information on internal DEI efforts in the UNC system, a possible prelude to legislation addressing those practices.

White spoke to WHQR by phone this week to field questions about his appointment and his concerns and goals on the Board of Governors. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Ben Schachtman: When you left the UNCW Board of Trustees you had some concerns about the fairness or the openness of freedom of speech. Do you still have those concerns?

Woody White: Yeah, I think the way I expressed it then was I just didn't really care for the double standard that I saw on the campus at the time. And since then, I think the whole nation has seen sort of the same double standard on many university campuses. And so viewpoint diversity is very important to me, and to a lot of people – most people, it should be important to. And I think that will be an issue that I'll work on, along with the other members of the board who are already working on this as we speak.

BS: Let me use that as a segue. What are some of the ways you think the university system, in your mind, could have better diversity of thought?

WW: Well, they can begin, I think, by reading and applying the standards of First Amendment, and instead of discriminating against thought diversity, treating all opinions and all points of view equally. I think they can also continue to minimize the adverse impacts of diversity, equity, and inclusion indoctrination that's taken over many of our universities and other government institutions over the last few years. And you're seeing that some of the rollback in the mandatory language at some of the universities had been requiring of new hires. And so I think there'll be some more focus on that moving forward.

BS: The Joint Committee [on Government Operations] recently solicited some pretty comprehensive information from the UNC system about all their DEI efforts. Do you have any idea what's going on there? Is that something you're privy to?

WW: Well, I know what I read and what I hear about the importance of these issues to a large swath of North Carolina taxpayers. Moms and dads who send their young people to these universities simply want a real, well-rounded education experience that's affordable. They don't want their children indoctrinated. They don't want their children told what to think. They want their children to learn how to think and how to become productive members of society. And all these efforts that [House] speaker [Tim] Moore, and President Pro-Tem [Phil] Berger, and the leaders in the legislature are trying to do is simply get our university systems back to a liberal arts education that focuses on respect for all viewpoints and that allows graduates to find spots in the workforce. Get back to the basics. And that's what I see happening in Raleigh. I think that's part of why they asked me to serve on there. And I look forward to doing so.

BS: Along those lines, the way the university system operates right now, do you feel like a student comes out with a four-year degree with a meaningful advantage in the job market?

WW: That's a that's a very good question that a lot of people are starting to ask and have been asking in the last few years. You've seen student debt spiral out of control. You've seen degrees that cost a quarter of a million dollars that lead to minimum-wage jobs insome cases. And so I think there has to be, and this is going to be a real realignment of the core product that is being delivered to a four year degree applicant. And so there ought to be some expectation, if you pay $200,000 for a four-year degree, that you're going to be able to get a job to pay that debt back. And if the public universities don't figure out how to recalibrate that, then the marketplace is going to do it for them, either via more enrollees in the community college system or easier training and licensing with vocational needs. The marketplace has an uncanny way of doing that over time, and I don't think universities can sit back on their laurels any longer. They're going to have to think long-term about the marketplace and how to deliver the product to those seeking to come into their classrooms. And the UNC system is doing that. It's certainly not, I'm not the one suggesting that, I think the university system is figuring that out, as well. This is the oldest, best university system in the nation. And I hope to be a part of finding some new solutions moving forward.

BS: On the DEI front, are you suggesting eliminating all DEI or just sort of scaling it back or reframing it? How do you feel about that?

WW:  Well, I'm certainly not in a position to issue policy initiatives –

BS: That’s fair –

WW: I will say that diversity equity inclusion, the acronym DEI, was a well-intentioned idea a decade ago. Everyone supports the idea of everyone being included, and no one being excluded, and all points of view and race, gender and so forth, having equal access to education. And that's a universal principle that everyone agrees with. But in recent years, the acronym DEI has come to really represent a lot more than that universal understanding. It's come to represent more of an indoctrination, and advocacy for a liberal push down of an agenda that is not consistent with a broad liberal arts education. And so, certainly not advocating for a complete dismantling of it, I look forward to seeing how the issues will be addressed. I'm not proposing any new broad policy initiative – but I do agree with many that are pointing out that it has gotten out of control. And I share that view.

BS: State Senator Gladys Robinson (D) has been quoted in a number of news outlets criticizing the nomination process – you did not nominate yourself, I will make that clear – but her critique was that there should be more women and people of color being put forward. Do you want to say anything to that point?

WW: I certainly respect Senator Robinson and all the members of the legislature. You know, for 130 years, one party ruled this state – and for the last 13 years, another party has had a seat at the table finally. And so you are seeing just a recalibration of a normal process through the will of the electorate. So this isn't a heavy-handed move by the legislature, I see it more as, the electorate speaks, they elect representatives to go to their state capitol and represent their shared value system. And that’s what is happening. And I am a believer, as I said a moment ago, in diversity, diversity of thought, gender, race. Those are all good things. And no one disagrees with that. It's a universally accepted notion. It's just in recent years, the capital letters of DEI have come to represent something much more than inclusivity. They've come to represent a political agenda.

BS: Last question since we’re short on time, is about the research work that gets done at places like UNCW. Do you have thoughts on that? Do you feel like that's being adequately supported?

WW: Well, I think the question raises a larger question, which is, there are lots of good things happening at not just our research universities but our standard liberal arts universities, and this whole conversation around political agendas and the lack of free speech is drowning out all the other nonpolitical, much more important issues that take place on campuses and need to take place on campuses. And so I hope, at some point, we can get back to just educating young people, our non-traditional students, whoever shows up at our campuses, wanting to better their lives, wanting to get degrees, earn money to support their families, and live good lives. And stop talking all the time, about politics, and race, and gender, and all of these controversial things. It's really a manifestation of the last few years. And as I've said, a couple of times, it's grown out of proportion to what the average person wants, the average person just wants to go learn and experience the university campuses and what it has to offer. Most people don't wake up every day thinking about all these political things, but it seems like that just dominates the conversation. And so I hope we can move past that and focus more on what your question asks, which is supporting research and putting people in jobs and just really raising the standard of life for our North Carolina citizens.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.