Gov. Cooper’s UNC “Commission” Shows Its Hand

By enlisting the UNC-System’s accreditor in its power grab, the new governance commission threatens legitimate board oversight.

At the end of last year, Governor Roy Cooper surprised North Carolina higher-education leaders with his creation of a Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina. The commission has no official authority over the UNC System or the North Carolina General Assembly, so it’s unclear what Cooper hoped to accomplish.

Soon after the commission’s creation, a legislative staffer in House Speaker Tim Moore’s office tweeted that its recommendations would be “dead on arrival.” A WUNC reporter concurred, saying, “The obvious shortcoming here is that @NC_Governor can’t mandate anything. In order to systemically change how the UNC Board of Governors is chosen, the legislature would have to voluntarily give up appointing power. That ain’t happening.”

At the commission’s second meeting, held this week, its true purpose became clear: undermine the authority of existing boards and reinforce campus orthodoxies. “It’s pure politics,” said one observer. The meeting featured a presentation by SACSCOC president Belle Wheelan, who has a record of opposing board oversight. This time, Wheelan targeted the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and UNC’s planned School of Civic Life and Leadership.

During her presentation, Wheelan told commissioners, “UNC-Chapel Hill’s board is going to get a letter because of a news article that came out that said that the board, without input from the administration or faculty, had decided they were going to put in this new curriculum offering. Okay. Explain that, because that’s kind of not the way we do business.”

Why did Wheelan announce SACS’s letter to an outside entity with no official place in the UNC governance structure?Later in the discussion, she elaborated, “We’re gonna see the committee and talk to them and help them understand it and either get them to change it, or the institution will be on warning with [SACS], I’m sure.”

But UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees Chairman David Boliek said he hadn’t heard from SACS. “We haven’t received a letter from SACSCOC and haven’t heard anything from them about our request to the administration to accelerate the development of a school of Civic Life and Leadership,” Boliek told the Martin Center.

And after the meeting, a representative of SACSCOC said no reprimand letter had been drafted and that the SACSCOC board, which approves such letters, hadn’t met since December.

So why did Wheelan announce the letter to the commission, an outside entity with no official place in the UNC governance structure?

In a call the next day with Trustee Marty Kotis, Wheelan revealed that commission co-chair Margaret Spellings asked her to do so. Wheelan told Kotis, “I was asked to mention it … I will tell you it was Secretary Spellings who asked me to mention that.”

In the same phone call, Wheelan played down the letter’s importance, saying, “It’s just a letter of inquiry. Nothing’s wrong yet.” She also admitted that she had not yet read the Board of Trustees’ resolution on the new school.

Wheelan said, “We have a policy called an unsolicited information policy. When anything hits the media and looks like it may put the college out of compliance with our standards, we send a letter saying ‘hey, we’ve seen this … so tell us what’s going on’.”

But both Wheelan and Spellings have a record of using accreditation as a tool to disempower university boards. During her tenure as president of the UNC System, Spellings used the maneuver when she called in Wheelan in 2017 to scold the UNC Board of Governors and remind them to “stay in their lane.” And Wheelan herself has targeted boards in the past when they have exercised their authority to make decisions or provide university oversight. In his 2021 open letter to Wheelan, National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood documented two such instances, including one in which she attempted to influence a university hiring decision.

Given this record of interference in board governance and the commission’s lack of real authority, UNC’s current board members should feel free to ignore any recommendations that result from its work. They might even consider looking for a new accreditor—one that respects the board’s important role in policymaking and oversight.

Jenna A. Robinson is the president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.