CHAPEL HILL — Members of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors on Jan. 26 tangled with their chairman, Lou Bissette, over a recent op-ed calling the body “too political.”

In a Charlotte Observer opinion piece published Dec. 26 titled, “UNC Board of Governors Chair: We need to stay out of politics,” Bissette wrote that the board “has long understood it was not designed to or expected to manage the day-to-day operations of the university system or to choose sides in political controversies.”

That challenge is greater now than ever, he wrote.

Bissette’s commentary followed an interesting year for the board. In September, after months of heated debate, the BOG blocked the UNC law school’s Center for Civil Rights from filing lawsuits against government entities. The N.C. State Bar later revealed the center operated illegally, but not before some members suggested the BOG had overstepped its grounds.

The board must “refrain from any desire to intervene too directly and focus on our responsibility to improve an already excellent system,” Bissette wrote.

The message didn’t sit well. Partisan agendas aren’t part of board operations, even though most members are Republicans, board member Thom Goolsby told Carolina Journal earlier this month.

On Friday, a playful — but strained — series of comments illustrated other members’ displeasure.

“[The op-ed was] not something I was happy to read, as you can imagine,” said member Bob Rucho, a former member of the state Senate. “We need to understand why our Board of Governors chairman made a public comment critical of the board in some estimations, rather than consulting with the board members directly about our concerns.”

The article didn’t attack the board, and was never intended to do so, Bissette responded. The Observer’s headline, which centered on politics, was written by the newspaper without his knowledge or approval.

“The problem with that is, I never said that. … At least see my side of the story, here,” Bissette said.  

The commentary focused on the board’s history of independent, non-political policy making, Bissette said. It also praised the board’s “accomplishments  in addressing access and affordability and student success.”

Freedom of speech is a right for everyone, and board members should not be excluded, he said.

He pointed to Harry Smith, Tom Fetzer, and Marty Kotis as examples of members who often speak to the media without getting the board’s approval.

“I’ve never said, ‘Marty, I don’t want you doing that without knowing what you’re going to say.’ No one on the board should have to consult with others when it comes to speaking freely.”

No matter what Bissette intended, his op-ed continues to worry board members who feel they are simply doing their jobs, Kotis said.

“I don’t think any of us are coming in here with the idea of introducing politics,” Kotis replied. “We’re clearly an all-Republican board. But we do expect to govern, and have a say, and speak up. And that’s the only politics that I see being introduced.”