What is the BOG? How did we get here?

Background

What is the BOG?

In 1971 the North Carolina General Assembly created the current governance structure of the UNC System which included reforming the former Board of Trustees into the present Board of Governors (BOG). BOG members are elected by the North Carolina General Assembly for staggered four-year terms. As of  July 1, 2019, the Board of Governors has 24 voting members, shrunk from 32. Half are elected by the NC House and half are elected by the NC Senate.

Why is this site necessary?

In just the past year the UNC System has lost (the BOG has forced out) two chancellors and its president. The search committee for a new president is now chaired by a former McCrory appointee during whose tenure North Carolina had a widespread case of ballot fraud. Individual institutions, some who serve historically marginalized students without the financial buffer of billion-dollar endowments, are left to exist in chronic bureaucratic chaos. Ironically, a body made up of people who preach the gospel of limited government has willingly obstructed and intervened at every level of system governance.

This kind of “obsessive micromanagement,” is epitomized in BOG members derailing a hiring processes for one chancellor and allegedly forcing out another because of a personal grudge. BOG members have been named in whistleblower lawsuits alleging sketchy real estate negotiations. This mismanagement ultimately hurts the university system and its students.

In the wake of one of the most turbulent chapters of UNC Chapel Hill’s history – the movement to remove Silent Sam – multiple BOG members acted like conservative commentators (and youtubers) rather than public servants. In a sense, it was in this moment that BOG leadership revealed its true colors. It has been about ideology all along. Despite lamenting the demise of the “free exchange of ideas,” (evidenced by their push to establish a conservative-leaning center at UNC-Chapel Hill) many BOG members do not appear to believe in the right to protest, the right to speak truth to power, and the idea that students, faculty, and workers who spend most of their time at a university may be better equipped to shape its direction than retired conservative legislators, lobbyists, and CEOs. The BOG has a job and because of infighting, mismanagement, and general disdain for students and faculty whose worldview does not match their own, it is failing to do it.

The BOG is closely tied to the Republican-controlled NC Legislature.

Since Republicans took over both chambers of the state legislature in 2011, legislators, lobbyists, and political operatives have transformed the state into a haven for corporations where privatization and deregulation reign at the expense of public goods. The University of North Carolina System, one of the premier public university systems in the nation, has been a perennial target of conservative ire. A rapidly transformed BOG has already begun to fully actualize a far-right agenda of privatizing education.

The UNC System has sustained budget cut after budget cut while its governing board has emblemized the reaches of corporate power. News outlets have  followed how the BOG now functions as a deeply partisan “arm of the legislature.” For example, three contract lobbyists with deep ties to the Republican establishment – David Powers, Thom Goolsby, and former chair of the North Carolina Republican Party Tom Fetzer – now sit on the BOG. The BOG includes five former Republican legislators who played key roles in the North Carolina General Assembly’s sharp turn to the right after the election of former Governor Pat McCrory.

Four of these legislators took part in some of the lowest points of North Carolina’s recent political history. One BOG member, Bob Rucho, actively shaped the trajectory of tax reform that seemed to gleefully penalize working and middle-class North Carolinians. Two BOG members, Thom Goolsby and Leo Daughtry, actively sought to revive the death penalty in North Carolina and tried to repeal a law that offers incarcerated people an avenue to overturn a wrongful conviction due to racial bias. All three paved the way for racial and partisan gerrymandering and a 2013 voter ID law that was ruled unconstitutional for targeting African American voters with “almost surgical precision.” In response, after their legislative careers ended, they were rewarded with the most prestigious political appointments in the state.

The demographics of the BOG reveal a stark reality. The governing body charged with managing the operations of the UNC System does not reflect the people the system serves.

  • As of 2019 everyone on the BOG is registered as a Republican or unaffiliated voter, despite North Carolina being a purple state. Of the unaffiliated members, the designation is in name only as their campaign contributions to Republican leaders speak for themselves.
  • Out of 24 members only three are non-white (two are Black, one is American Indian). North Carolina is 62.8 percent white and over 20 percent Black. Only five members of the board are women while women make up more than half the state’s population and almost 60 percent of all UNC students.
  • Perhaps the most revealing statistic is that one third of the members of the BOG live in a home valued at $1 million or more, whereas median home value in North Carolina is $186,000. The homeownership rate in North Carolina is 65.7 percent. Almost 15 percent of North Carolinians live in poverty.

Changes to the BOG over the past few years reflect a broader strategy to pack the Board with conservative mega-donors who will adhere to a corporate, profit-driven model of governance despite evident conflicts of interest.

Major changes to the BOG began under then NC House Speaker Thom Tillis. During his tenure, Republicans elected “mega-contributors” to the BOG. A super PAC for Tillis raised $70,000 dollars from three men the House appointed to the UNC BOG, which raised questions about donor influence and the integrity of the BOG. Documents revealed that Tillis pushed appointees to the BOG because they were major political contributors. In 2017 the NCGA voted to shrink the number of people on the board and reduce the number of members elected each session from 16 to 12, shrinking the BOG from 32 to 24 members by 2019. Legislators justified the move by saying it “reflects modern corporate governance and efficiency needs.

The trend of appointing major political contributors has only worsened since the Tillis super PAC. The BOG is now teeming with business executives, lobbyists, and lawyers who, while friendly to the NCGOP, have no notable experience in the education field. Under the helm of new BOG Chair Harry Smith, the BOG became obsessed with “efficiency,” marking UNC as the target of the national movement to gut public university systems and run them like corporations.

Harry Smith, wrought chaos and mismanagement on the BOG and allegedly used his position to try to strongarm university officials into unethical real estate deals that benefit him. A Greenville businessman, Smith joined the BOG in 2013 after being nominated by Phil Berger, who said Smith’s business background and interest in public education made him a good fit for the BOG. Originally, when Berger called Smith to serve on the BOG, Smith refused and said “I didn’t even know what the BOG was.” Smith’s rise to chair has represented a “changing of the guard” to a BOG made up of conservative business leaders rather than people with professional connections to the UNC System. Smith, an alum of East Carolina University (ECU), said he wants to make the university system “quicker, smarter, faster and better.”

BOG member Alex Mitchell embodies the current trend of BOG appointees. President of Southern Durham Development, Mitchell was the controversial developer behind the 751 South project. In 2013 the project almost failed because the City of Durham would not provide water and sewer services to the upscale residential community. However, House Speaker Tim Moore saved Mitchell’s project as then-chairman of the House Rules Committee when he pushed legislation to override the City of Durham’s decision, saving 751 South and forcing the city to provide water and sewer services. Mitchell, a major donor to Moore, was appointed to the BOG in 2015.

Members of the BOG have deep connections to the Pope establishment behind the corporatization of education.

Former state legislator and conservative mega donor Art Pope’s guiding mission was to make North Carolina politics more hospitable to big-business through state budgets that prioritized a regressive tax code, gutting of basic environmental protections, and school privatization. He was able to actualize this vision in 2013 when newly-elected Governor Pat McCrory, whose campaign Pope heavily funded, named Art Pope as his state budget director. Pope was at the helm of the historic 2013 conservative tax reform as McCrory’s budget director, which was central to the dominance of big-business interests in the legislature.  2013 tax reform became a fundamental overhaul in multiple areas of the tax code. It replaced a multi-bracket income tax with a lower flat tax, cut corporate taxes, and broadened sales tax. Notably, the Trump administration modeled its current tax plan after the North Carolina overhaul.

Pope is both “one of the most generous donors” to UNC- Chapel Hill, his alma mater, and its fiercest critic. He has given UNC-Chapel Hill millions of dollars and also funneled millions into think tanks that lambast the university as a haven for liberal political correctness. As McCrory’s state budget director, he was responsible for the university’s future.

In 2011 one of Art Pope’s major goals was to shift the public university system away from what he viewed as pervasive liberal bias.

Almost one third of the BOG is connected to Pope. The BOG contains four former state legislators (two from the House and two from the Senate) who voted for tax reform in 2013: Robert Rucho, Rob Bryan, Leo Daughtry, and Thom Goolsby.

Two more BOG members are connected to Pope-funded political groups Real Jobs NC and Civitas that helped conservatives take over the legislature. According to an email from a longtime GOP consultant David Powers helped with Real Jobs NC, a group that backed Republican candidates early in the 2010s and helped McCrory in his reelection bid. Powers, who has “extensive experience” in national Republican politics, was involved in the fundraising for Real Jobs NC during his tenure on the BOG. Steven Long who was central to the litigation ban on the UNC Center for Civil Rights, is also a former board member at the Civitas Institute.

However, the member that perhaps most embodies these connections is Tom Fetzer. Fetzer’s 2017 appointment to the BOG was widely seen as a GOP strategy to “tilt” the BOG in a more conservative direction. Fetzer, who was elected NCGOP chairman in 2009, learned politics from late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. Helms, a noted segregationist whose tactics planted the seed for present-day efforts to foreclose voting rights, is a notorious forefather of the present-day conservative movement. Fetzer was chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party in 2010 when Republicans won both the North Carolina House and Senate for the first time since 1898.

In 2015 a conservative BOG installed former Bush Education Secretary Margaret Spellings after forcing out former University President Tom Ross. Spellings previously served on the Board of Directors for the Apollo Group, which lists the University of Phoenix as its “Flagship Institution.” The Spelling Commission was “one of the first proponents of performance-based funding in higher education.”

BOG members use the corporate logic of “efficiency needs” to mask a broader, ideologically-driven, war on perceived “liberal bias” in the UNC System, specifically UNC-Chapel Hill.

Conservatives have long deemed UNC-Chapel Hill as an institution hostile to their corporate and ideological agenda and the BOG has not been subtle about their disdain for faculty at the flagship campus with perceived “liberal bias.” Within the last few years, the BOG notably approved a ban on litigation at UNC Law School’s Center for Civil Rights and shut down three centers that drew conservative ire: The Center of Work, Poverty and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill, East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity, and NC Central University’s Institute for Civil Engagement and Social Change. BOG Member Steve Long, a former Civitas board member, said there were “red flags” at the Center for Civil Rights, criticized the center for “failing to investigate the full range of civil rights,” and said that the center was “plagued by political activity and political bias” because it did not contain “diverse points of view.”

BOG member David Powers, a lobbyist with deep connections to the conservative political establishment, once suggested during tuition and fee proposals that the BOG look at a system that would set tuition according to the market conditions for each major.

Powers said, “I know you can’t operate the university entirely like a business,” but noted that charging a higher rate for some degrees was almost a “teaching moment” for business students. In 2015, Governor Pat McCrory wanted to change state funding formulas so that funding was allocated to schools based on how many graduates got jobs.

Infighting and political dysfunction continue to plague the BOG as a far-right North Carolina General Assembly continues to appoint conservative lightning rods who are less interested in effective governance than soundbites. Political dysfunction cost the UNC System two presidents and multiple chancellors. But perhaps that is the point.

Sources