Behind Closed Doors

“Joseph Stalin would be proud.”

That damning assessment refers to the North Carolina Senate’s process for selecting new members of the state university system’s ruling body, the Board of Governors (BOG). It was made by the Senate’s Republican Leader, Phil Berger (R-Guilford, Rockingham). The process does bear some resemblance to a 1930s Soviet “show trial.” It offers the outward appearance of a legitimate event, while the results are known ahead of time and the real work is done behind closed doors by people with a vested interest in keeping everything a secret.

Berger said that Republicans don’t even bother to seek out good candidates to nominate “because the system is so closed.”

At the very least, the control maintained by the Democratic Senate leadership over the election is a classic example of good-old-boy, in-your-face, power politics. It is precisely the sort of one-party backroom maneuvering that lends itself to corruption, and it undermines the integrity of North Carolina’s much-admired university system.

The process for electing Board of Governors members begins with individual senators nominating candidates. There are eight seats to be filled by each house of the legislature this year. If there were more than 16 candidates nominated in the Senate, the Education/Higher Education Committee would have been required to reduce that number to 16 or less before the final vote by the entire Senate. (The same rules apply to the House).

This year, there were 12 nominations for the eight open Senate-controlled seats—five are current BOG members still eligible for re-election (members can serve three terms of four years), and the other seven are new.

Just before the election, four members suddenly withdrew, leaving exactly eight to fill the eight empty seats. Berger said this is normal—the Democratic caucus meets and settles on the candidates they want. The Democrats then advise the other candidates that they are not going to be elected and convince them to withdraw.

Then, the entire Senate votes. This year, as expected, all eight candidates on the ballot won. Berger said there is no provision to write in candidates, and all eight candidates must be selected—no non-votes for an individual candidate allowed—or that Senator’s ballot is declared void. The last point is important because a candidate must get a majority of the votes to be elected—this rule prevents the elimination of a particularly questionable candidate by a full Senate vote.

This corruption-inviting system functions because of the long-time majority in the Senate. This year there are 30 Democrats to 20 Republicans. Although not officially a chairperson, Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand (D-Bladen, Cumberland) has a major presence on the Education Committee. According to Chris Fitzsimon, director of the liberal think tank N.C. Policy Watch, “it is not a secret that Rand and Senate Pro Tem Marc Basnight (D-Dare) generally decide who is on the ballot for the Board of Governors and who drops off.”

It is unlikely that any Senate Democrat is going to buck his or her party’s top leadership in this matter, meaning that only Republican candidates who receive the Rand-Basnight seal of approval can get through the process.

This opaque process is not new. There was a similar occurrence in the Senate in 2005, with four candidates withdrawing at the last minute, including the sole Republican nominee.

But it is not the “process” alone that is at the heart of the problem in the Senate—perhaps it is a problem created by the individuals involved as well. The House has exactly the same BOG election rules as the Senate, and a similar Democratic majority. Yet there are no similar ethical concerns. Paul Stam, the House minority leader and a member of the BOG Election Committee, said that the “House Democrats wouldn’t try that here. I’d be shocked if they did.”

Stam added that all eleven BOG nominations will be on next week’s House ballot—“eight Democrats and three Republicans, and we’ll probably elect a couple of ours [Republicans].”

So who got through the Senate process this year?

The four new members of the BOG selected by the Senate this year are:

  • Former state Chief Justice Burley Mitchell, who is all things N.C. State—a current member of the school’s Board of Trustees who has at one time or another been the president of the Alumni Association Board of Directors, president of the Board of Visitors, and of the NC State University Foundation.
  • Paul Fulton, the head of the Citizens for Higher Education, a political action committee that promotes the interests of UNC-Chapel Hill. He is the former CEO of Sarah Lee and Bassett Furniture, and former Dean of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
  • Franklin McCain, who chairs the N.C. A&T Board of Trustees. He is retired from Hoest-Celanese Corporation.
  • John Blackburn, who chairs the Appalachian State Board of Trustees. He is also the president of Linville Resorts, Inc.

“The people who win,” said Berger, “have either given money to the Democratic Party or represent some identifiable Democratic constituency, like minorities.” That appears to be true.

McCain, a lifelong civil rights activist, is now chairman of the state’s NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund committee—a most visible representative of an “identifiable Democratic constituency.”

Mitchell and Blackburn gave generously to Democrat candidates and organizations in 2007 and 2008, with Blackburn contributing $8,150 and Mitchell offering $11,650 (McCain gave $1,500).

Fulton has been active on both sides of the political aisle. His political contributions for 2007 and 2008 were $12,000 for Democrats and $4,500 for Republicans. This pattern of bi-partisan contributions is reflected in the activities of the Citizens for Higher Education—it gave $485,000 in political contributions for the 2008 elections to state politicians of both parties.

Giving to Democratic politicians is not the only thing the new governors have in common. All four have exceptionally strong ties to one of the university system’s campuses. While it should not be a problem to have a few individuals on the BOG with such ties, the Board is also supposed to represent the state as a whole. There is no question where the allegiances of the four new governors lie—with their respective campuses, not with the residents and taxpayers of North Carolina. Thus, this scenario has a “foxes-guarding-the-henhouse” aspect as well.

UNC governance suffers in at least one more way when Governors are “anointed” instead of elected—any independent thinkers are likely to be eliminated before a single vote is cast. The effect of this system on the Board is apparent, for monthly meetings are rarely hotbeds of contention and debate. Such an atmosphere is conducive to the manufacture of rubber stamps.

How all four non-elected candidates were persuaded to withdraw at the last minute will not likely be known. Perhaps all is innocent. But wherever powerful people insist on secrecy for what should be a transparent process, doing so must raise a few eyebrows. And if the election rules lend themselves to that secrecy, it’s time to change them. The university system is too important to continue this troubling scenario.