On Tuesday, Nov. 1, North Carolina’s Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper held a press conference at the Executive Mansion announcing the creation of a new commission tasked with reforming the University of North Carolina System’s governance. Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings, both recent former presidents of the UNC System, were present while Cooper signed the executive order and were announced as the new commission’s two co-chairs.

Cooper praised the UNC System as a prized possession of the state, but said that recent controversies have shown that changes need to be made. Journalist Jeff Tiberii, who was on the scene, reported that Cooper said “Republicans have too much power of the process.” Tiberii also reported that Cooper peppered his speech with references to diversity. The commission will be tasked with making recommendations for increasing diversity on UNC boards.

But Jenna Robinson, director of the Martin Center for Higher Education, pushed back on this focus on diversity in comments to the Carolina Journal.

“Just as the US Supreme Court is poised to end the divisive practice of using racial preferences in college admissions, Governor Cooper wants to bring it back,” Robinson said. “This is a step in the wrong direction.”

Robinson added: “Governor Cooper’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina seems designed to undermine the authority of the UNC Board of Governors, the various Boards of Trustees, and the General Assembly. Although reform is still needed, these entities have served students well by keeping tuition low and shepherding our schools through the pandemic.”

Cooper’s office released a press statement afterwards detailing the executive order that was signed.

In that release, Ross is quoted as saying, “The University of North Carolina System is an unparalleled asset for our state and a comprehensive review to ensure that our governance structure is designed to enhance these institutions and meet the rapidly changing demands of the future is the right thing to do,” said Tom Ross.

Cooper’s statement also said that, despite all of the great history and impact of the UNC System, “Unfortunately, a spate of controversies over the last few years has led to concerns that boards plagued by undue political influence and bureaucratic meddling hinder effective university governance. Instability and political interference can have significant impacts on campus leadership, turnover and academic experience for students, and can threaten the university’s reputation and the state’s economy and communities.”

Regardless of Cooper’s desire to reform the leadership structure of the UNC System, the guidelines for how the boards are constituted are written in statute, so the Republican-led General Assembly would have to agree to give up any power they have over the process, which they are unlikely to agree to do. Neal Inman, chief of staff for Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, tweeted a simple, “It’s DOA [dead on arrival]” in response to the news, indicating the General Assembly would not take action on any recommendations emerging from Cooper’s reform commission.

Nov. 2 update: comment from Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, “You’d have to be naïve to think the purpose of this ‘commission’ is to do anything other than recommend the Governor obtain partisan appointments to university boards. Gov. Cooper rightly describes the UNC System as ‘the state’s crown jewel.’ Our state’s constitution wisely places full responsibility for maintaining our ‘public system of higher education’ in the General Assembly. Gov. Cooper’s latest autocratic attempt to enlarge his power and expand executive control is disappointing, but unsurprising considering his relentless assault on the separation of powers.”

Lauren Horsch, Berger’s communications director, added, “Additionally, Gov. Cooper said in his press conference that lawmakers were aware of his announcement. Our office was not made aware of the announcement until the press conference began. There was no prior notification.”

She also noted that since the UNC System was restructured in 1971, governors have never had appointing authority to UNC’s Board of Governors.

Nov. 2 update No. 2: comment from from University of North Carolina System President Peter Hans regarding Gov. Cooper’s Commission on the Future of Public Universities in North Carolina: “As my predecessor President Bill Friday observed, ‘The University has always been the object of criticism, and this is a healthy circumstance….Our state and its old University have thrived and grown great because its people are free to have their say.’ Disagreements over policy and governance are a fact of life, and we welcome public interest and accountability, as the University of North Carolina’s fundamentals have never been stronger. We remain committed to our public mission, the University’s 17 unique institutions, our $1.8 billion research portfolio, and most importantly, the 240,000 students we serve.

Cooper’s executive order directs the commission to provide a report before eight months time that assesses the governing structure and makes recommendations to fix any perceived issues.

The three issues regarding the governing structure the commission is directed to explore are “1) who should appoint the members of the Board of Governors and the members of each Board of Trustees; 2) how to ensure that the composition of the Board of Governors and each Board of Trustees reflects the regional, ethnic, racial, gender, gender, political, and economic diversity of the state; and 3) a proposed set of principles and responsibilities that should apply to members of the Board of Governors and members of each Board of Trustees.”