North Carolina governor seeks more diversity on university boards

Seeing racial inequities in system of Republican-controlled legislature appointing campus trustees, state’s Democratic leader sets up commission to press reforms

November 2, 2022
South Building on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill.
Source: iStock

More than a year after the Nikole Hannah-Jones debacle crystallised concerns over structural racial inequities at the University of North Carolina, the state’s governor is pushing for an overhaul.

Roy Cooper, the governor of North Carolina since 2017, has announced the creation of a high-level commission to examine how the state appoints members of its university governing boards and to suggest reforms to that process.

“In a state with many racial, ethnic, geographic, political, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds,” the governor told a news briefing, “we have an appointed university leadership that doesn’t come close to reflecting our diversity.”

The bipartisan study commission will be led by two former presidents of the 16-campus UNC system, Margaret Spellings and Tom Ross – a Republican and a Democrat – and be asked to produce a report within eight months.

It follows last year’s highly publicised incident in which the board of trustees at the UNC flagship campus in Chapel Hill delayed a vote on accepting Pulitzer-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones as tenured faculty member, only to watch her give up and take a similar position at Howard University.

The board’s effective rejection of Professor Hannah-Jones – it formally approved her only after months of heavy pressure – was widely attributed to its lack of racial diversity, and was seen as part of a series of such decisions blamed for driving away black students and academics from one of the nation’s top public institutions.

Yet the governor’s move in creating the study commission, while put forth as bipartisan, seeks to address a problem with clear political dimensions.

Mr Cooper is a Democrat, but the Republican-controlled state legislature – under a law enacted in 2016 when the state also had a Republican governor – holds nearly complete control over choosing members of the UNC system’s statewide board of governors and the boards of trustees at individual universities.

For the sake of North Carolina’s well-regarded public universities, Mr Cooper said, that situation cannot persist. “If this continues much longer,” he said, “it will not end well.”

It wasn’t clear, however, how the commission could alter the underlying political dynamic. Republicans in charge of the state legislature responded negatively to the governor’s announcement, calling it a partisan attempt to wrest back control of appointments to university governing boards.

Mr Ross is an attorney and former state judge who led the UNC system from 2011 to 2016. Ms Spellings, a political activist who served as US secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration, led the UNC system from 2016 to 2019.

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