Monday, June 11, 2012

Part 1: Politics and UNC Board of Governors; pressure mounts for impending Chair vote

This is the first of a three-part post about the UNC Board of Governors which is scheduled to elect officers at its regular meeting, Friday, June 15. Much of what is written is my opinion. Some information is based on communications. And some information comes from the UNC system website.
Friday of this week, with typical political maneuvering by the leadership of the General Assembly and the current Chairperson and Vice-Chair of the body that governs the state’s system of higher education, the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina system will vote to elect new officers. The position of Chairperson, replacing out-going Chairperson Hannah Gage, will be selected from two candidates who have announced their candidacy. They are: Vice-Chair Peter Hans, a lawyer-lobbyist with close ties to the Republican leadership in the state legislature, and Paul Fulton, who was appointed by a Democratic-controlled General Assembly and who has a resume so long it would take Hans two or three lifetimes to catch up.

Unless several members of the BOG refuse to cow-tow to political pressure, Mr. Hans will get elected and the transition from an independent, policy-making body established years ago which has served that way through most of the UNC system’s Presidents to a highly politicized group with strings attached directly to the legislature will be complete. For Mr. Hans to win, he’ll have to make good on promises to appoint to committee chairmanships BOG members he needs to vote in his favor. Mr. Hans will also need to rely on votes from several BOG members who have been told they will not get re-appointed to the BOG if they vote against Mr. Hans. At least that’s my take. And, if that’s not political pressure, what is?

There may be reasons not to vote for Mr. Fulton, such as his involvement in the hiring and firing of UNC football coach Butch Davis (which might be a good reason to vote for him). Mr. Fulton is a very strong supporter of the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, and that may be a problem for the other 16 campuses of the UNC system. But, maybe his devout loyalty to UNC-Chapel Hill would require him to pay more attention to the other 16 institutions that make up the UNC system. As far as I can tell, he has no reason to give in to General Assembly wishes and he hasn’t promised other Board members committee chairs in return for a vote.

One reason I think Mr. Hans will be beholding to the current General Assembly leadership is because of his recent participation in negotiations between UNC Healthcare and WakeMed Health and Hospitals in their fight for supremacy in Wake County health care. Mr. Hans was selected to participate as a representative of the UNC BOG, tabbed by the General Assembly leadership but without the knowledge of the full BOG.  At the conclusion of the negotiations, Ms. Gage, a supporter of Mr. Hans’ candidacy, sent to the BOG a communication praising Mr. Hans’ involvement in what has been called a mutually agreeable settlement. That communication from Ms. Gage to the BOG was the first knowledge the other BOG members had of Mr. Hans' involvement in the negotiations.

An inquiry from me to the BOG in general about the situation, about the appointment and involvement of Mr. Hans, was sent via email to every member who has an email address, asking for an explanation of why Mr. Hans was asked to serve without full BOG knowledge. Evidently, based on a response from Ms. Gage, I was asking questions that BOG members had already asked with unsatisfactory answers. I asked if Ms. Gage knew of the appointment of Mr. Hans and if by informing the BOG with her communication if she was trying to boost Mr. Hans’ candidacy. To her credit, she responded:

With all due respect, I have no idea who you are or why you've taken such a keen interest in the Board of Governors but I suggest you send your emails to President (Tom) Ross. I had nothing to do with the legislature's decision to ask one of our board members to help with the Rex-Wake controversy and learned about it from our President. To imply otherwise is not only incorrect, it's insulting. The Rex Wake issue has taken an enormous amount of the University's time, and not only do I think it's appropriate to praise a board member who helped with the resolution, I would do it for any board member and be grateful for their commitment to the University. –Hannah Gage email, Tues. June 5

Until my inquiry about Ms. Hans’ appointment, my interest in the UNC BOG has been keen but from a distance. As a native North Carolinian, I've been interested in the structure of North Carolina higher education but not so much concerned with the Board of Governors. My interest has primarily been with the President of the system, who it is and how the person performs. There have been many good, strong Presidents, but maybe not so much now. Over the years, I’ve read and continue to read media accounts of BOG meetings, commenting to anyone within earshot but not much further away. This time I decided to ask for an explanation from the BOG.

In my questioning of the Board, I offered my own conclusions which may have ruffled a few feathers, especially those of Ms. Gage who I believe in her response to my questions and concerns was a little abrupt and overly concerned with what I was asking. She seemed to take it personally, a little thin-skinned maybe. But, that’s okay. She’s just trying to protect her territory and didn’t like a citizen of North Carolina butting into her BOG control even though every citizen of North Carolina has the right to ask questions and butt in to her BOG business.

Over the many years of my interest in the UNC system and the Board of Governors, I’ve drawn some basic conclusions about the way the BOG does business. Those conclusions and others are confirmed by the reaction by Ms. Gage as to the pressures of her role as Chairperson and to the impending vote later this week. As the election of a new Chairperson approaches, some of my conclusions are included in tomorrow’s post.


  1. Sorry but I must disagree with your characterization of the BOG as "independent, policy-making body established years ago". In my never to humble opinion, and experience, they have always been political. They have always been heavy laden with UNC-Chapel Hill folks, but we finally have four Wuffies (elected by the General Assemblly).

  2. Interesting observations, Jim. I await your additional columns. I don't always agree with you but I read your posts regularly. (I, too, have always considered the BOG to be very political, from where I watched during my 30 years of university life.)


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