Governor Cooper’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina has been holding public forum meetings since February in an effort to spur conversation and ideas about the current governance structure of North Carolina’s public universities.
The last two meetings took place this month, with UNC Greensboro hosting on April 4th and Durham Tech hosting on April 11th. According to its website, the commission is designed to “assess the current appointment system of public university governance in the University of North Carolina System and make recommendations to the Governor on how it can be reformed and strengthened.”
As stated in the executive order that established it, the commission is tasked with creating recommendations concerning the following:
1) who should appoint the members of the Board of Governors [BOG] and the members of each Board of Trustees [BOT];
2) how to ensure that the composition of the Board of Governors and each Board of Trustees reflects the regional, ethnic, racial, gender, gender [sic], political, and economic diversity of the state; and
3) a proposed set of principles and responsibilities that should apply to members of the Board of Governors and members of each Board of Trustees.
Many recommendations were voiced at the two April meetings, and those recommendations adhered well to the guidelines quoted above. As such, discussion mostly served to echo the commission’s previously stated concerns about the diversity of the members who make up each board.
While commission co-chair Tom Ross was careful to give a disclaimer at the beginning of each meeting that the forums were not to be used to “air grievances or discuss past failures” (and that any person who chose to do so would not be recognized), this was largely toothless. Many attendees voiced personal qualms with members of the board or with decisions the board had made previously.
Among those who shared suggestions at the meeting, many expressed concerns about the diversity of the current board, with an emphasis on racial, gender, and political diversity. One commenter suggested the use of gender and racial quotas as a method of improving board diversity. Another touted the importance of monitoring appointees’ “ideologies” (i.e., political affiliations).
Discussion mostly echoed previously stated concerns about board “diversity.”By and large, the recommendations that were made fell into two main categories: the diversity (racial, gender, and political) of the board and faculty and student involvement on the board.
As previously stated, those who made diversity-related recommendations suggested considering the racial backgrounds, genders, and geographical locations of board members and ensuring members’ ideological diversity.
Those who made faculty- and student-involvement recommendations suggested sourcing future board members from retired faculty at UNC-System schools; creating an agenda item for BOT meetings whereby faculty representatives are welcome to speak; having a graduate student representative on the BOG in addition to an undergraduate student (as is currently the case); and allowing the chair of the faculty at each institution to be a non-voting constituent member of his or her respective BOT.
Attendees at both meetings supported the idea of sourcing board members from retired faculty, suggesting that this would bridge the gap between students and the boards. The claim was also made that retired faculty know how best to meet students’ needs, since they’ve worked directly within the system’s institutions. As expected, political diversity was a major issue at both meetings, as well.
One attendee suggested further transparency for BOG and BOT meetings, specifically the streaming of committee and board meetings. While the BOG currently adheres to this practice, some of the universities’ BOTs do not stream all meetings. The Martin Center has written frequently about increasing transparency within the BOG, so, in addition to that recommendation, perhaps we can include saving recordings of said meetings for future public reference and establishing the practice of taking votes by roll-call at both BOG and BOT meetings (and recording those votes in meeting minutes).
It is surprising (or perhaps not) that the commission has not been instructed to consider much beyond the DEI language included in the executive order. Hardly any mention was made at the April meetings about the qualifications or general life experience that board members bring to the UNC System. All emphasis was instead placed on DEI language, which is allegedly intended to welcome diversity but instead puts people into boxes. Henry Bauer put it well in a recent Martin Center article: DEI practices “are plainly un-American in calling for individuals to be treated as stereotypical representatives of their groups rather than as the genuinely unique individuals that we all are.”
From the conversation facilitated at these forums to the priorities presented by the commission itself, one message is quite clear: The only important considerations for some North Carolinians are what board members look like and which political party they support.
Ashlynn Warta is the state reporter for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.