A coalition for transparency at the UNC Board of Governors is building

UNC Board of Governors meetings are hard to navigate for the uninitiated, such as a member of the public. The committee rooms are small, spread out, and poorly labeled. All the people who attend the meetings seem to know each other. Finding a place to sit in the boardroom often means arriving an hour before the meeting begins. And if you don’t get a seat, you’re out of luck. Although the main board meeting is video-streamed into the lobby, it’s hard to hear and it isn’t recorded.

Board chairman John Fennebresque took a small step toward more transparent governance in December, when he announced that all that board members’ votes would be recorded.

Despite that reform, however, UNC governance remains opaque.

Even harder than navigating the board’s meetings is getting an audience with board members. The agenda for meetings is almost exclusively filled with general administration staff members and university administrators. Questions and comments from observers are not allowed in the meeting. So, in order to voice an opinion to board members, citizens and students must do it one-on-one via email or telephone.

A group of Carolina students has made similar observations. The UNC-Chapel Hill BOG Democracy Coalition is a left-liberal group that was formed to protest policies such as the ban on gender-neutral housing and a cap on the amount of tuition used for student aid. And recently, the group has shown that it’s more interested in its progressive agenda than the democratic process. Nonetheless, while the Pope Center disagrees with its positions, some of the group’s suggestions for transparency have universal appeal.

The coalition suggests four reforms:

  • Allow for a public comment and petition session before every meeting.
  • Allow sufficient public seating at meetings to accommodate the public.
  • Require board members to conduct university business using a standard UNC e-mail address.
  • Allow the student representative on the board to vote.

In some areas, the group’s suggestions go too far. Their contention (outlined on Facebook) that “the practice of closed-door sessions should be eliminated” would end important privacy protections for university employees. And extending the vote to the board’s student member confuses the system of governance. Board members work for the General Assembly, not for the universities.

But some of the group’s other suggested reforms are well worth adopting. In fact, some don’t go far enough.

Sufficient public seating at full board meetings and committee meetings should be a given. Ideally, board meetings would be moved away from the UNC General Administration building in Chapel Hill and into a larger space—preferably in Raleigh because the board reports to the legislature, not the general administration. The current location of meetings creates a pervasive “inside baseball” atmosphere that discourages students and members of the public from attending. It also makes it very easy for general administration employees to fill all the available seating—even if they aren’t directly involved in the business that’s being discussed.

Moreover, meetings should be streamed and recorded. The current practice of video streaming the meeting into the lobby demonstrates that the Spangler Center (where meetings are currently held) already possesses the technology to do this.

There’s considerable precedent for such a change. The North Carolina General Assembly provides audio streams of all of its floor meetings as well as many of its large committee meetings. The City of Raleigh—with a budget much smaller than that of the UNC system—streams all of its meetings on the Raleigh Television Network. The State Board of Education, which governs North Carolina’s K-12 public schools, often audio streams its meetings. Outside the state, the Missouri public university system (which has four campuses) provides audio streams all of its Board of Curators meetings. Recordings from those meetings are also available in an audio archive going back to 2008. We should expect no less from UNC.

Lastly, the board should listen to alternative viewpoints instead of relying on the UNC General Administration for all its information. The Pope Center has suggested that the board needs its own executive secretary to determine topics of discussion and to line up expert witnesses. Such a person would keep in mind that the board represents the taxpayers and the legislature—not the universities. A public comment period might also be beneficial—as long as faculty and university administrators do not monopolize the public comment slots.

It’s time for more transparency and open access at UNC.