Contentious UNC board meets for hours without update on president search
Posted October 16, 2015
Cary, N.C. — The University of North Carolina System Board of Governors met behind closed doors Friday for more than four hours, but no one was talking about what they covered.
Multiple sources told WRAL News that the meeting was called to interview Margaret Spellings, a former U.S. Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, for the UNC president position that will be left open with the ouster of Tom Ross at the end of the calendar year.
The handling of that hiring process has board members at odds with Chairman John Fennebresque.
Although board members have said in interviews and in emails obtained by WRAL they don't have a problem with Spellings herself, they have issues with the process used to tap her as the apparent front runner.
"Among other things, in your short tenure you have blocked board members from accessing university staff for public information about the system, botched President Ross’ termination, hired an incredibly controversial search consultant and barred two-thirds of the board from participating in the hiring process," Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington lawyer and former state senator, wrote to Fennebresque and other members of the board this week.
Goolsby's letter went on to say that no matter how qualified Spellings or any other candidate might be, the process used to select her was so tainted Fennebresque could not hope to win confirmation. His letter has touched off a chorus of agreement and several more calls for Fennebresque to resign.
"Sadly I concur with Mr. Goolsby. This presidential search has been handled poorly in my opinion and a change in leadership is needed," said BOG member C. Philip Beyers.
A formal notice issued Thursday said the UNC Board of Governors would hold an emergency meeting at 1 p.m. Friday in Cary to receive an update from a committee looking for a new president of the state's public university system. It was at that meeting that Spellings was supposed to introduce herself to a board.
Hers is the only name to surface so far in the search to replace Ross, but even the the manner in which Friday's meeting was called drew criticism.
The UNC Board of Governors is a public body and can only hold meetings on short notice under special circumstances. Board member Marty Kotis, a Greensboro real estate developer, filed a formal objection saying Friday's session lacked such urgency.
Kotis went on to write that the "Chairman has contrived this 'emergency' as a subterfuge" to circumvent instructions from lawmakers about how to conduct the search for a new president.
Before leaving session at the end of September, lawmakers passed SB 670, which directs the 11-member committee searching for a new president to bring at least three names to the Board of Governors. That bill hasn't been signed yet and the governor doesn't have to take action until Oct. 30.
Top legislative leaders have also raised questions about the search process, questioning why the board seems to be rushing before SB 670 can go into effect.
"Calling an emergency meeting to discuss only one candidate could be viewed as the Board's attempt to circumvent the overwhelming will of the elected people of the State of North Carolina," a letter from House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Temp Phil Berger reads. "Our concern is not about any candidate for the presidency but rather the process which at least a few members of the Board have utilized that appears to cut against the fundamental notions of transparency and due process."
Before Friday's meeting convened, it appeared as if a good number of board members shared those concerns.
"I feel strongly that the Chairman should resign and allow new leadership to move the process along and I feel strongly the candidate will be in a much better position to move the UNC System forward with healthy initiatives," Harry Smith, another member of the Board of Governor's wrote. "It's time for the board to unite and do great things it's my opinion with the current leadership that will be a challenge. John has no doubt given a tremendous amount of his time and energy to this board and I thank him for that we all should."
Board members said in a statement that they are following the state's laws as amended.
"We fully understand President Berger’s and Speaker Moore’s view that the recently passed Senate Bill 670 requires that the full Board of Governors consider the names of at least three final candidates," the board's statement said. "We share their desire that the final selection not be hurried or made without consideration by the entire board."