How North Carolina’s Elected Officials Impact Higher Ed

Responsibility for higher-ed governance is broadly shared—and important to understand.

[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that North Carolina’s governor and local boards of education appoint some members to community-college boards of trustees. We regret the error.]

With North Carolina’s primary election right around the corner, the Martin Center has put together a guide to the elected officials who impact higher education in the state. While it may not be obvious at the ballot box—North Carolinians don’t elect the UNC-System president or individual board members, for instance—the officials whom North Carolina constituents do elect play a significant role in higher-education governance. Many elected officials have influence over public universities in North Carolina. The following breakdown is intended to shed light on which officials to keep in mind when filling out your ballot on March 5th—with one particular elected body deserving special attention.

The North Carolina General Assembly

Made up of 170 members between the House and Senate, the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) is the single most powerful elected body with influence over higher education. The NCGA appoints the 24 members of the UNC-System Board of Governors (BOG). In the event of a vacancy, the Board notifies the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate; the chamber that originally elected the member then fills the vacancy.

The General Assembly is the single most powerful elected body with influence over higher education.The legislature also appoints four board of trustees members for each of the UNC-System constituent institutions (and fills vacancies). Last year, a transfer of powers took place, such that the legislature is now also responsible for electing the N.C. Community College System’s president, as well as 18 of 19 members of the NCCCS Board. Additionally, the legislature is now responsible for appointing eight members to each of the 58 North Carolina community colleges’ board of trustees.

Beyond appointments, the legislature is responsible for the budgets for both the UNC System and the NCCC System, determining appropriations of funds for each UNC-System constituent institution and funding the NCCCS’s central office. North Carolina ranks fourth highest in per-student taxpayer funding in the nation, meaning that a significant portion of the state’s budget goes towards higher education.

Perhaps the most impactful power the legislature wields concerns the enacting of legislation that can transform higher education. Each legislative session, countless bills are considered that could affect much of higher-ed governance.

The Governor

The North Carolina governorship has seen many changes to its role in higher education over the past year. Many powers that previously belonged to the governor have since been reduced, making his or her total influence on higher education much smaller than in previous years.

The governor is required to “prepare and recommend a budget and to administer the budget as enacted by the General Assembly.” During development of the state budget, the governor is presented with requests from both the UNC-System Board of Governors and the NCCCS Board, which are then taken into consideration.

County Commissioners

County commissioners have influence on each of the 58 community colleges’ board of trustees, as they are responsible for appointing four members to each board. For colleges spanning multiple counties, the appointments are decided jointly. Given that the 58 institutions span all 100 counties in the state, every vote for a county commissioner impacts community colleges. Counties also supply funding to their local community colleges.

The Lieutenant Governor

Presently and historically, the lieutenant governor serves as an ex officio member of the State Board of Community Colleges. However, according to the 2023 budget, beginning July 1, 2025, the lieutenant governor will no longer have a seat on this board.

Policy changes are a direct result of those whom we collectively elect into office.The State Treasurer 

Similarly, the state treasurer is currently an ex officio member of the State Board of Community Colleges and will also lose that seat on July 1, 2025.

The Commissioner of Labor

Like the lieutenant governor and state treasurer, the commissioner of labor is a current ex officio member of the State Board of Community Colleges and will lose that seat as of July 1, 2025.

While some of these officials hold more control over higher education than others, they are all worth keeping in mind as the primary approaches. Anyone who is involved with or keeps tabs on higher-education governance is well aware that it is always in flux—things are often changing. It is important to remember that policy changes and legislation are a direct result of those whom we collectively elect into office.

Ashlynn Warta is the state reporter for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.