Chairman quits UNC Board of Governors

Posted October 26, 2015 12:52 p.m. EDT
Updated October 26, 2015 6:19 p.m. EDT

— Under fire for how the search for a new University of North Carolina system president was selected, UNC Board of Governors Chairman John Fennebresque resigned his seat on the board Monday.

The Charlotte attorney was named chairman of the board that oversees the 17-campus system last year and was appointed by the General Assembly to his third four-year term on the board in July.

Asheville attorney W. Louis “Lou” Bissette, Jr., who has been vice chairman of the Board of Governors, will become acting chairman until the board can elect a new leader. A 30-day waiting period is required.

Fennebresque’s seat on the board will remain vacant until the state Senate elects a successor to serve out the remainder of his term.

His last official duty as chairman was presiding at last Friday's meeting when the board voted unanimously to name former U.S. education secretary Margaret Spellings as the next UNC president.

“With the search completed, I believe now is the time for a fresh start for our University system and its 17 campuses, as well as for this Board of Governors," Fennebresque said in a statement. "So, today, I am stepping down from the Board to make way for and encourage new leadership. Significant challenges lie ahead for the system as it continues to provide the unparalleled education our students deserve.”

Fennebresque was unavailable for comment Monday, and UNC system spokeswoman Joni Worthington said no university administrators would comment.

While board members praised the selection of Spellings, the events that led up to it irked many members, as well as students, faculty and even state lawmakers.

In January, Fennebresque announced that President Tom Ross would be stepping down at the end of the year. Fennebresque praised Ross' work but couldn't state a reason for the change in leadership after Ross said he didn't want to retire and wished to continue as president.

Numerous board members then complained about what they saw as a secretive process to choose Ross' successor, especially an Oct. 16 emergency meeting in Cary where Spellings was the only candidate interviewed.

"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 days before the emergency meeting.

"This presidential search has been handled poorly in my opinion, and a change in leadership is needed," board member C. Philip Beyers

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger questioned the search process, suggesting in a joint statement that it "appears to cut against the fundamental notions of transparency and due process."

Spellings, who will take over UNC in March, declined to comment Friday on the search process, aside from joking that she thought the board made a great choice.

Word of his sudden departure pushed all ill will aside, however.

“While John Fennebresque and I may have had our differences at times, he truly loves the University of North Carolina and has been a tireless, passionate advocate for it,” Ross said in a statement. “He has served the UNC system with great dedication and commitment.”

“I think John is doing the right thing for himself and for the university," said board member Marty Kotis, a Greensboro real estate developer who has criticized Fennebresque in the past.

Kotis said that, before he joined the board, he was impressed with Fennebresque’s ability to dig into issues and question information.

“The challenge for all of us that are in business or in leadership roles is, when someone transition into the role as a chairman, they have to become more of a consensus builder and do the will of the board," he said. "They also have to transition to being the face of the university. That’s a daunting task.”

“Throughout the search process, John supported us so that we could do our best work," board member Ann Goodnight of Cary said in a statement. "Empowering others to lead is an important characteristic of a true leader, and I thank John for it.”

"John Fennebresque accomplished much during his term. Most importantly, he initiated the hiring of a new President who has the ability to lead transformative change," board member Champ Mitchell said in a statement. "Higher education in this country is going through substantial and often disruptive changes. Our University has no choice but to change how it delivers education and make it more affordable and more efficient.”