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Gov. Cooper creates commission to review UNC appointment system, citing concerns of ‘undue political influence’

Governor Roy Cooper with Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings.
Office of the Governor
Governor Roy Cooper with Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings.

On Tuesday, the Governor’s office announced the creation of a “bipartisan Commission” co-chaired by two former system presidents and tasked with delivering an assessment of the current UNC system governance structure by mid-2023. Changes to that system, however, would require major — and currently unlikely — gains by Democrats in the General Assembly.

The Commission on the Future of Public Universities, created through an executive order from Governor Roy Cooper, was born out of the tense, and sometimes bare-knuckle, politics of the ostensibly non-partisan UNC system of appointments.

According to Cooper’s office, which announcedExecutive Order 272 today, the commission is being created in response to a “spate of controversies over the last few years,” concerns of “undue political influence and bureaucratic meddling hinder effective university governance” and a sense that “[i]nstability and political interference can have significant impacts on campus leadership, turnover and academic experience for students, and can threaten the university’s reputation and the state’s economy and communities.”

Related: Tim Moore’s Heavy Hand

WHQR asked Cooper’s office for specifics on these ‘controversies,’ but has not yet received a response. However, Cooper’s announcement comes just a few weeks after WHQR and The Assembly reported on House Speaker Tim Moore’s attempt to secure the chancellorship of UNCW for his former chief of staff, Clayton Somers, and Moore’s abrupt dismissal of UNCW Trustee Holly Grange, a staunch conservative Moore himself had appointed one year earlier, in apparent retaliation for not getting his way. The reporting also looked at Somers’ influence, seen as outsized by some, at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Not their first rodeo

The Commission of 15 unpaid members will be headed up by Democrat Tom Ross and Republican Margaret Spellings – both had experience with the increasingly politicized UNC Board of Governors.

Tom Ross was pushed out in 2005, although with relative kindness: a $600,000 one-year contract through early 2006, a year of paid research leave at $300,000, and a tenured position at UNC’s School of Government.

Conservatives, including then-Board of Governors Chairman John Fennebresque and Moore, praised Ross – but, at the same time, no specific reason for his ouster was given. Some pointed to Ross’ time heading the Winston-Salem based Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, which has funded progressive causes; others speculated that the board — which had shifted right since Ross’ 2010 hire — wanted to “put its stamp” on the UNC system, as The News & Observer put it.

Though Spellings was hired by the same Republican board that pushed Democrat (and Democrat-hire) Ross out, the board shifted further right during her three-year tenure, the shortest of any system president.

Spellings, who served as education secretary for George W. Bush for four years, certainly had conservative credentials, but resigned after a series of controversies — including the rollout of HB2 and the ‘Silent Sam’ protests — saw more conservative factions of the Board of Governors turn against her.

During a press conference, Spellings made remarks widely considered to indicate these conflicts weighed heavily on her decision to bow out.

“The time is right for me to really step back and reflect on how many licks do I hit? How many rodeos do I have? What's in my future? And move on,” she said.

Change or 'distraction'?

As noted in Cooper’s Executive Order 272, the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors was created in 1971 to provide non-partisan oversight. That ‘non-partisan’ status has been increasingly troubled.

The system is vulnerable to political influence from both sides, but divided government has historically provided some balance. However, over the last six years, conservative forces in Raleigh have tried to exert more control over the UNC system; after stripping the Governor’s office of appointment powers in 2016, the Republican-controlled General Assembly now appoints some university-level trustees and all Board of Governors members (thereby, indirectly, having appointment power for the remaining trustee spots).

According to Cooper’s office, “the Commission will assess the current appointment system of public university governance in North Carolina and make recommendations to the Governor on how it can be reformed and strengthened. Members of this Commission will come from varying backgrounds related to experience with the UNC System, general experience with higher education governance, and experience with higher education best practices.”

Cooper has mandated the Commission to deliver a report “no later” than eight months from the order’s signing, asking for it to include “an assessment of the current public university governance structure and any additional recommendations as requested by the Governor regarding the need for support and oversight of the state’s public universities.”

But actual changes to the system of appointments – including to the Board of Governors and the university-level Boards of Trustees — would require legislation in the General Assembly.

Asked for comment about Cooper’s executive order, a spokesperson for Speaker Moore said that’s unlikely.

“Governance of higher education is constitutionally placed with the General Assembly. There is no interest in changing the structure of the UNC system, regardless of whatever report this politically-motivated commission produces,” the spokesperson said.

Senate President Phil Berger criticized Cooper's announcement as an "autocratic" attempt to exert executive power and the Commission as Cooper's "latest distraction."

With many Democratic strategists focusing not on winning back the House or Senate but instead on staving off a Republican supermajority — the GOP needs just two Senate seats and three House seats — it’s doubtful any changes recommended in mid-2023 could be acted on in the coming legislative session.

Cooper did suggest during a press conference on Tuesday that, if recommendations included additional appointment powers for the Governor's office, those changes not be acted on until after his term is up in 2025.

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.