The members of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors are charged with a solemn duty: to oversee and guide the state’s public university system. Although some of their day-to-day responsibilities might seem mundane, many of the decisions they make shape the system’s standards, values, and the extent to which the university’s dual mission of truth-seeking and public service is fulfilled.
Yet, although BOG members often pride themselves on being “bold leaders” of the university system, they rarely vote “no” on any of the decisions brought before them—even on items that might be considered controversial.
Granted, sometimes the board isn’t asked to vote on potentially controversial items. For example, the full UNC BOG was not given a chance to vote on the report of the Racial Equity Task Force. Instead, the Task Force itself voted on and approved the report, then presented it to UNC System President Peter Hans and UNC BOG Chairman Randy Ramsey.
At other times, the board votes on items that are truly non-controversial, such as resolutions to honor retiring employees for their long service in the university system or appointing members to the board of the North Carolina Arboretum.
However, board members still tend to rubber-stamp even when the items in question involve weighty matters that could significantly affect the system’s structure and direction.
They are asked to consider, for example, whether or not to maintain the cost of tuition and fees in light of a global pandemic. It is up to them to decide the entire system’s minimum admissions standards. The board also determines, in many ways, the extent of their own influence and authority.
Below are summaries of five important issues that the board voted on in 2020. The roll calls, included in each section, show that the majority of board members voted “yea” on all five votes.
Minimum Admission Standards
The first controversial vote, on whether to permanently change the UNC system’s minimum admissions requirements, took place on March 30, 2020.
For several months prior, the educational planning committee had been developing a proposal that would, in effect, enable applicants with very low standardized test scores to apply to any UNC institution. At the time, to be considered for admission to any UNC school, all applicants had to have a minimum GPA of 2.5 (a “C+” average) and an SAT score of 880 (or ACT score of 17). The proposed changes would make it so that applicants would have to have a minimum GPA of 2.5 or an SAT score of 1010 (or ACT score of 19).
Under the revised policy, a student with an extremely poor SAT or ACT test score would still be eligible to apply as long as they had a 2.5 GPA. Unfortunately, due to widespread grade inflation, simply looking at a GPA is not always the most reliable way to assess a student’s academic standing. Indeed, research suggests that test scores and GPA together are the strongest indicators of student success.
Nevertheless, in January 2020, the education planning committee approved the proposal and it was set to be voted on by the full board. On March 30, a special meeting was held specifically to vote on the policy. There was a great deal of pressure to adopt the new admissions standards since the pandemic made testing centers temporarily inaccessible.
In the end, the board decided to adopt the new admission standards as a three-year pilot program, not as a permanent policy change.
This vote was held by conference call and no recorded roll call is available. However, listening to the audio, only three board members objected to the motion: Steve Long and Thom Goolsby. The identity of the third member is unclear.
Suspending the SAT
On July 23, the BOG voted to temporarily waive the SAT or ACT requirement for college applicants. The vote came after UNC administrators proposed that an “emergency temporary waiver” be approved so that students who are unable to take the test due to cancellations are not negatively impacted in the admissions process. They recommended the board “waive the standardized test requirement for students applying for admission in Spring 2021, Summer 2021, and Fall 2021.”
Board member Steve Long argued that the proposed policy was too “drastic” and suggested that the system adopt a different strategy, such as having students sign a certificate that they have not been able to get a test score because of the pandemic. Long also noted that waiving the testing requirement would impact the findings of the three-year minimum admissions pilot it adopted in March:
We’re going to need the [testing] data in order to determine whether or not we should continue to have a standardized score as part of our admissions requirements and one of things we’re going to ask is “what is the test score and what is the graduation rate?” because that is going to be an important point for us.
Nevertheless, the motion to temporarily waive the SAT was approved, with 20 votes in the affirmative and four votes opposed.
Maintaining Normal Tuition and Fees During the Pandemic
The board was confronted with another controversial decision about whether to maintain the cost of tuition and fees in the wake of COVID-19. Ever since the sudden shift from in-person to online classes in Spring 2020, the question of whether students would have to pay the same tuition for a “Zoom” education loomed in the air. Students and some education leaders argued that the quality and effectiveness of Zoom classes were not equal in value to regular in-person classes and therefore should not cost the same amount.
Additionally, many argued that the cost of student fees should be decreased. Students pointed out that they shouldn’t have to pay fees for health services or student activities since they were not on campus.
Even so, on July 23, the board decided that it still needed the revenue brought in by the fees and voted to keep costs the same, with 18 votes in the affirmative and six opposed.
Policy on Chancellor Searches and Elections
On September 17, the BOG approved a policy revision that would give the UNC system president the power to select a final candidate for chancellor searches. According to the amended policy, the president:
[S]hall have the overall responsibility for overseeing System Office staff with responsibility for managing and supporting chancellor searches, helping determine search committee membership, charging the search committee, developing chancellor leadership competencies, interviewing chancellor finalists, participating in the reference checking process, negotiating the terms of employment for a chancellor-elect consistent with state law and Board policy, and offering a chancellor-elect for final consideration by the Board of Governors
By giving the president the ability to select a candidate for final consideration, the board willingly gave up more of its authority and consolidated even more power in the office of the president. The motion passed with 20 votes in the affirmative and four votes opposed.
Duties, Responsibilities, and Expectations of Board Members
On October 22, the board voted to amend the section of the UNC policy manual dealing with the “Duties, Responsibilities, and Expectations of Board Members.” The revised version of the policy included a new section that curbs board members’ ability to individually investigate issues of board concern. The amended policy now states that board members must not:
Undertake reviews, background checks, investigations, or any other assessments of University employees or candidates for University employment unless duly and explicitly directed to do so by the president, by the chief executive officer of the employing institution, or by the Board of Governors.
The policy revision was likely a response to former board member Tom Fetzer’s decision to independently conduct a background check of a candidate for the chancellorship of Western Carolina University. Fetzer hired an outside firm to do the background check because he noticed something concerning on the candidate’s curriculum vitae.
Fetzer’s actions were met with strong disapproval, with many members arguing that he should not have taken the initiative to do his own investigation independent of the full board. But as the Martin Center’s Jay Schalin wrote in November:
The real problem that needed addressing was not Fetzer’s individual investigation, but the fact that an unfit candidate was chosen for the job and passed through the system’s screening procedures. Fetzer should have been applauded for performing due diligence above and beyond what is expected of a board member.
By approving the policy revision, the board in effect relinquished more of its authority to high-ranking administrators. The motion carried with 21 votes in the affirmative.
The pattern is clear: Many members of the UNC board of governors consistently rubber-stamp whatever is placed before them. What is less clear is why they do so.
The reasons might be personal. Perhaps they don’t want to be known as bothersome members who raise pestering questions. The few board members who do routinely raise difficult questions are often singled out and joked about in the manner of “oh no, so-and-so is at it again.” It is much more comfortable to go with the flow in order to maintain amicable relationships with the UNC establishment.
Alternatively, perhaps board members fail to look into the issues sufficiently or lack the information needed to make informed decisions. Or perhaps they view their role in the system as more symbolic than hands-on and believe that the “experts” should be allowed to steer the ship.
Whatever the reason, the citizens of North Carolina deserve BOG members who want to have an active role in university governance, who are independent-minded, and who are unafraid to hold the administration’s feet to the fire.
The university’s efficiency, effectiveness, and academic integrity depend on such leadership.
Shannon Watkins is senior writer at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.