The Man Who Would Be King

John Fennebresque’s friends and coworkers call him “Czar.” That appears to be a fitting nickname, for his imperious exercise of authority was his downfall as chairman of the University of North Carolina system’s Board of Governors.

Additionally, his yearlong control over a supposedly democratic governing body exposed serious flaws in the way the UNC board conducts its business.

Fennebresque, a longtime corporate attorney from Charlotte, resigned from the board last week amid outcry from the public, the legislature, and many of his fellow Governors. The immediate cause was his handling of the system’s presidential search, which began earlier this year and ended October 23 with the hiring of Margaret Spellings.

The search began inauspiciously, to say the least. In January, the board forced current UNC system president Tom Ross to step down in early 2016, without first conducting a performance review. According to this Raleigh News & Observer article, although the full board ultimately voted to remove Ross, the move was “largely orchestrated by Fennebresque.”

That decision angered many in the state, particularly faculty members with whom the liberal Ross was popular. Fennebresque’s inept performance in a televised press conference announcing the decision was painful to watch; he could have simply said that he wanted to move the system in a different direction, but instead got tangled in his own words and further inflamed critics.

After angering many liberals, the Fennebresque-led board then alienated some reform-minded conservatives by instituting a controversial presidential search policy. That policy established a powerful 12-member committee that some board members said shut down debate and effectively prohibited two-thirds of the board’s 32 members from participating in the hiring process. Many of the complaints came from new members who were not part of the board when it unanimously approved the policy on April 10.

Fennebresque also backed the hiring of Isaacson, Miller, a national executive search firm that focuses on increasing “diversity” in higher education and other fields. At a board meeting he refused to answer a question about the search’s funding source (the final price tag was over $300,000).

In addition, the “Czar” held several meetings related to the search at McGuireWoods, the Charlotte-based law firm where he works. (Other search committee meetings were conducted at the system’s General Administration building in Chapel Hill and SAS facilities in Cary.) And he employed an executive assistant—with no official UNC system affiliation—to help him manage the search process.

Such tactics left a bitter taste in the mouths of many state legislators. It appeared that Fennebresque was flouting the will of the board (a creature of the legislature), restricting access to crucial information, and avoiding transparency.

As a result, the General Assembly passed a bill that, in addition to limiting board members’ tenure to three four-year terms, requires the entire board to review at least three final candidates before a final vote for system president is made.

In the weeks leading up to the presidential hire, the bill was in limbo—it didn’t become law until October 31, a week after Spellings was hired. That timing issue caused some board members to speculate that Fennebresque wanted to circumvent the intent of the legislature and not allow the entire board to fully consider other top applicants.

And that’s exactly what happened on October 16, when Fennebresque called a last-minute “emergency” board meeting to discuss a “promising candidate”—Spellings.

Some board members complained about the suddenness of the meeting, saying that their previous business plans precluded them from attending. They also questioned whether it violated public meetings laws. Others argued that Fennebresque was disregarding the pending legislation. Several board members called for his resignation.

“You are doing a grave disservice to the University and your candidate by moving forward tomorrow,” wrote board member and former state senator Thom Goolsby in a letter to Fennebresque. “No matter how qualified, anyone advanced under your chairmanship would be fruit from a poisonous tree.”

Ultimately, other candidates were presented to the full board, thereby satisfying, if only superficially, the legislature’s intent; none of those candidates appeared in person and discussions about their qualifications were brief.

The only candidate to appear in person was Spellings. Furthermore, Spellings and Fennebresque later met privately with Governor Pat McCrory. These events suggest that the “interview” and the following week’s election were mere formalities.

In other words, Fennebresque got what he wanted and secured his Board of Governors legacy. Although the way he handled the search would cost him the chairmanship, he was able to dictate the thing that’s perhaps most attractive about serving on the board, politically speaking: the selection of the system president.

Unfortunately, Fennebresque’s heavy-handed approach temporarily damaged the UNC system. It also did a disservice to Spellings, who will begin her presidency next March amid serious doubts about her selection. She’s already viewed by many university stakeholders as a purely political hire and byproduct of a highly corrupt search process.

Fennebresque’s mishandling of the presidential search was no surprise to those paying attention to higher education in North Carolina. After Fennebresque assumed the chairmanship in fall 2014, he immediately showed signs of being both power-hungry and a cheerleader for the state’s higher education establishment.

Especially telling was his treatment of fellow Governors. For instance, one of his first acts as chairman was to require board members to seek either his authorization or approval from committee chairmen if they wanted to request information from the system’s General Administration. And board member Marty Kotis told the Carolina Journal last October that Fennebresque’s appointments often backed the interests of the university administration, not taxpayers or student groups.

These and other events of the past year should serve as a learning lesson, albeit a painful one. Fennebresque’s controversial stint as board chairman raised key issues that state policymakers—and the public—must address.

One is the “pay to play” nature of Board of Governors appointments. For example, since 2007, John Fennebresque donated more than $260,000 to prominent state politicians. (Other board members have, collectively, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars.) Fennebresque told the Charlotte Observer he gave to legislators “to make sure I have an audience” when lobbying for the system.

This system often results in the appointment of disengaged board members who, in the main (there are some exceptions), vote time and time again in favor of harmful policies promoted by university officials and system administrators.

The state legislature should rethink how it makes UNC Board of Governors appointments. Legislators need to be made aware that board membership requires more than a ready smile and lots of “team spirit.” Rather, it requires a fully informed, engaged individual who understands that our universities need strong public oversight.

Fennebresque’s chairmanship also brought to light board rules that inhibit reform-minded members from holding the university system and its member schools accountable.

For instance, current rules allow the board chairman to appoint committee chairs and to create special committees. It may be worthwhile to revisit those rules and determine whether democratization (within the board) of committee appointments might prevent future “czars” from using the board as their political plaything.

Fennebresque also ended a longstanding tradition of introducing new issues via formal presentations in full board meetings and instead shifted them to committee meetings. This kept board members less aware of the full scope of issues facing the system. It also reduced awareness by the media and other watchdogs. The general presentations should be restored.

Other measures could give reformers a fighting chance. Policymakers could:

  • Establish an independent executive secretary position. The person in that position would act an intermediary between the system’s General Administration and the BOG. Right now, board members get all of their information from the system, and sometimes it’s one-sided and incomplete.
  • Reduce the size of the board (it currently has 32 members). A large board is unwieldy; most of the real work gets done in committees that can be controlled by leadership. It may be better to have a smaller board in which in-depth discussions occur in general meetings.
  • Require that the results of all board votes be posted on the UNC system’s website, with a breakdown of how each member voted, as well as a brief synopsis of the policy or issue at hand. A biannual or annual report could be produced and delivered to the legislature. This might make members think twice about their votes and encourage more due diligence.

This should be only the beginning of an ongoing conversation about increasing accountability and restoring integrity in the UNC system. Board members, legislators, the public, and university stakeholders must find ways to both limit the power of over-ambitious appointees such as Fennebresque and empower those who understand that public oversight of the state higher education system is necessary and proper.