Change could be coming to the UNC Board of Governors. Will it matter?

Published June 8, 2023

By Joe Killian

The UNC Board of Governors would change under a bill revised this week in the state House — as would the process for appointing members. But will adding members to the UNC System’s governing board — and the process by which they are appointed — make a substantive difference?

The new version of Senate Bill 512 would expand the board from 24 to 28 members. It would also eliminate the system under which legislators vote for new members, shifting appointments from an election process tightly controlled by the General Assembly’s Republican majority to a straight appointment process controlled by the leader of each chamber.

Prominent Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate’s respective higher education committees say the difference to the 17-campus system’s governing board could be negligible but disagree on whether that’s a good thing.

A change in process or more of the same?

“This is basically what they’ve been doing anyway,” said Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford), member of the Senate’s standing Committee on Education/Higher Education. “They take a vote now, but the slate of candidates has been controlled by Republicans for so many years and no Democrat has been able to get any candidate on the list. Most of us have given up trying.”

Sen. Gladys Robinson (Photo by Joe Killian)


Moving to a process by which each chamber simply appoints seven members every four years “upon the recommendation” of their respective leaders would further formalize a process in which the minority party is already effectively locked out, Robinson said. But it would also do away with the process of presenting a slate of candidates for the seats, debate on the candidates and a vote, which Robinson said makes the process even less transparent.

Robinson is now serving on the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina, a bipartisan study group created by Gov. Roy Cooper last year to address concerns and criticism about the UNC System and its governing board. Political influence and transparency have been top concerns as the commission readies its recommendations for Cooper, which should come in a report later this month.

“I don’t think these changes are going to make those things any better,” Robinson said.

No one denies the process for appointing members to the board of governors is a political one, said Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford), House Majority Whip and co-chair of the House standing Committee on Education/Universities. He agreed the process is now a straight appointment process in all but name, but said not every Republican gets their choice of appointments to the board, either.

“Any member can approach the [Speaker of the House] or the [President Pro Tem of the Senate] and say, ‘Hey, I have an idea who we can appoint,’” Hardister said. “I’ve done that before. And I’ve even had it where some of the folks I suggested, the speaker met with but ultimately went in another direction. So, you know, even me being in leadership and chairing a committee, I don’t always get what I want.”

‘Does this look like North Carolina?’

Expanding the system’s board of governors from 24 to 28 seats could be an opportunity for greater diversity on a board that has been strongly criticized for being more white, male and Republican than the student body or the makeup of the state.

Whether that will actually happen — and what sort of diversity may be considered valuable to GOP leadership — is unclear.

With new Senate and House appointments to the board announced in March and last month respectively, the board’s racial and political diversity increased marginally, but its gender diversity decreased.

After Republicans took the majority in both the state House and Senate, they purged the board of any registered Democrats for several years. That changed in 2021, when lawmakers appointed former State Sen. Joel Ford. Ford, who is Black and a Democrat, lost his Democratic primary after siding with Republicans on a number of controversial issues and publicly considering joining the Republican party.

Last month, the House tapped another Democrat — Gene Davis, a Raleigh attorney already serving on the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. Davis has business ties to N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), who shares legal clients with Davis and even uses his legal offices when he’s in Raleigh during the legislative session.

“There is obviously a certain type of Democrat they are looking for, and not many of them,” said Robinson.

Just two Democrats on a board of 24 members is much less political diversity than existed when Robinson served on the board for a decade herself — and less than when Moore himself served a four-year term in the late 1990s.

“I have reminded him of that,” Robinson said. “That when Democrats controlled this process, there were more Republicans and Democrats serving together on the board than we have seen in years now, with the current makeup.”

Too much is made of board members’ political affiliation, Hardister said.

“I’m not highly interested in the party affiliation, I’m more interested in who can bring value to the board,” he said. “I think that racial and gender diversity is always a good thing. But I think we have to leave with talent, and ability.”

Rep. Jon Hardister


Racial and gender diversity aren’t strong points on the board either, Robinson said.

With its newly elected members, five out of the board’s 24 members will be women — down from six on the current board. Current member Pearl Burris-Floyd was reelected to another term on the board, but all the new nominees this cycle were men.

“When you look at the fact that a majority of our students across the system are female, that really doesn’t seem right,” Robinson said.

According to the most recent enrollment data, 59 percent of students across the UNC system are female. With its slate of new members, women will represent just 21 percent of the board.

Representation of ethnic or racial minorities on the board isn’t a lot better, Robinson pointed out. There are now four Black members and, with the recent addition of Cary businessman Swadesh Chatterjee, one Indian-American. Chaterjee was the only new candidate from either chamber who was not a white man. As of Fall 2022, nearly 35 percent of students enrolled across the system belong to an ethnic or racial minority group.

There’s not “magic number” for how many members the board of governors should have, Hardister said, and no ideal number of members in terms of representation.

“You know, regardless of what a person looks like, regardless of their gender, I think we need to lead with the best talent and get people on the board that have different backgrounds,” Hardister said.

“These new seats may be an opportunity for different types of diversity,” Hardister said. “I think there needs to be diversity in terms of geography, where members come from in the state, and what they bring to the board in terms of their work background, their expertise.”

More representation from across the state would be good, Robinson said, as would members from varying backgrounds. Business executives and lawyers are now overrepresented on the board, she said, as well as on boards of trustees at individual campuses.

“But you can’t just ignore gender and racial representation on these boards and say it doesn’t matter much,” Robinson said. “We really do need to look at these boards, these leaders, and ask, ‘Does this look like our university system? Does this look like North Carolina?’”