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NC Community College System president named, as bill to shift power over leadership advances

NC Community College System

The state board of community colleges has announced Jeff Cox as its choice for the next North Carolina Community College system president.

The board’s announcement comes as state senators are advancing a bill to grant the General Assembly the power to confirm or deny a final candidate for the top post to lead the state’s 58 community colleges.

Cox has been the president of Wilkes Community College in western North Carolina since 2014. He also currently heads the North Carolina Community College Presidents’ Association.

Wilkes Community College

“We know our community colleges need strong statewide leadership and dynamic future-forward approaches to business and workforce development and Dr. Cox is that leader,” Burr Sullivan, the chair of the state board of community colleges, said in an emailed statement.

Former president Thomas Stith III resigned in July, amid reports by multiple media outlets that board members had concerns about his performance and hiring decisions. Stith’s resignation was announced abruptly days after the board held a closed-session meeting to review his progress on strategic goals.

A Senate committee approved a bill Wednesday to restructure how North Carolina’s community colleges are governed. The bill would grant the community college system president more authority over the system, while also giving the General Assembly more power over leadership appointments in the community college system, starting with the system president.

“This bill is about workforce development,” said Senator Amy Galey, a Republican from Burlington, who sponsored the bill. “There are underlying issues with the community college system which must be addressed. We have to be sure that our community colleges are as well positioned as possible to meet the needs of new employers.”

Galey said some community colleges have a better reputation for engaging with potential employers than others, and that the North Carolina Community College system president has previously had little power to replace ineffective presidents of individual colleges.

The bill would give the system president the ability to dismiss college presidents, and an amendment to the bill establishes a process for a president to appeal a dismissal.

When asked by a committee member, Galey declined to say what issues have arisen with community college leaders in the past.

“I think it'd be very unfair to single out somebody and talk about them publicly, but that doesn't keep us from making an observation that the structure needs to be improved upon,” Galey said.

The bill would eliminate the governor's four appointments to the state board of community colleges and remove seats on the state board reserved for the lieutenant governor, state treasurer and state commissioner of labor or their designees.

This would convert the state board of community colleges from a 21-member board with broad political representation from various state elected officials to an 18-member board appointed entirely by the General Assembly.

Five former governors — Jim Hunt, Jim Martin, Mike Easley, Bev Perdue and Pat McCrory — sent a letter to General Assembly leaders Phil Berger and Tim Moore opposing this bill and others that would strip appointment powers from the governor’s office. The letter argued the bills threaten the separation of powers defined in the North Carolina constitution.

“A dramatic shift in who chooses the people who carry out the laws threatens progress, and people’s livelihood,” the letter said.

Democrats on the Senate education committee raised concerns that the community college bill would inhibit the governor's role as a business recruiter for the state. Republican bill sponsors said the state constitution grants the power to appoint higher education trustees specifically to the General Assembly, with no mention of appointments by other state officials.

The bill would also change the makeup of local boards of trustees for community colleges, shifting appointments by local school boards and the governor to the General Assembly. The latest version of the bill would also allow boards of trustees to decide whether they want to invite a student advisor to the board, who has previously held a non-voting seat.

In his report to the state board of community colleges Friday, in his capacity as President of the North Carolina Community College Presidents’ Association, Cox expressed concerns among community college presidents about the bill.

“I would say that most of our presidents agree with the legislature on the need to strengthen the system president’s role, and the critical role our state governance structure plays overall,” Cox said. “But presidents were sharing concerns they had – that their trustees and [student government association] leaders have had – about the balance of local control versus state control.”

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