Gov. Roy Cooper has appointed members to his Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina. Earlier this month, Cooper signed an executive order establishing the commission and tasked it with recommending changes to how the University of North Carolina System leadership operates, including the Board of Governors. However, that governance is the responsibility of the state legislature, according to state law, so implementing any changes would have to go through lawmakers.

Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings, both recent former presidents of the UNC System, were named co-chairs by Cooper. Among the directives Cooper has assigned them is to find ways to increase “diversity” on UNC boards, reportedly saying that “Republicans have too much power” in the university system’s leadership boards.

“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,” Cooper’s statement read. “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.”

The UNC System has 17 schools, and the system president acts as chief executive officer. Under state law the system’s Board of Governors has 24 members elected by the state legislature in staggered four-year terms.

In his executive order, Cooper asked the commission to deliver a report in eight months that presents recommendations on how changes can be made to BOG appointment authority and how to make the composition of the leadership boards’ membership more diverse in race, gender, and political and economic status. The order also directed the commission to come up with “a proposed set of principles and responsibilities that should apply to members of the Board of Governors and members of each Board of Trustees.”

Following Cooper’s announcement of the commission, leadership in the N.C. General Assembly indicated that the governor’s effort to make changes in the UNC System leadership was “dead on arrival.”

“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,” Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said of the announcement earlier this month. “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.”

In addition to Ross and Spellings as co-chairs, last week Cooper presented the following members of the Commission:

  • Rep. John Bell of Goldsboro as a member at-large. Bell is a native of Mount Olive and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington with a bachelor of arts in criminal justice and sociology. He is serving his fifth term representing House District 10, which includes Greene, Johnston, and Wayne counties. Bell has served as House majority leader since August 2016.
  • W. Louis Bissette Jr. of Asheville as a member at-large. Bissette is an attorney with the law firm of McGuire Wood and Bissette in Asheville, where he served two terms as mayor. He currently serves on the Board of Trustees of Wake Forest University and UNC Asheville, and he is a former member of the Board of Trustees of Western Carolina University and the UNC Board of Governors, serving as chairman from 2015 to 2018.
  • Nicole Dobbins of Summerfield as a member at-large. Dobbins is an associate professor of special education in the Department of Educator Preparation at North Carolina A&T State University. Her research involves equitable and inclusive educational strategies with emphasis on differentiation through the application of universal design for learning. Dobbins is currently vice chair of the UNC Faculty Assembly and the N.C. A&T Faculty Senate. She is committed to ensuring faculty have a voice in shared governance through advocacy, communication, and collaborative efforts. 
  • Former Rep. John Fraley of Mooresville as a member at-large. Fraley served in the state House from 2015-2020. Fraley is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a current member of the UNC Board of Governors and serves as board chair of myFutureNC.
  • Isaiah Green of Massachusetts as a member at-large. A recent graduate of UNC Asheville, Green is the former student member of the UNC System Board of Governors and the former student body president at UNC Asheville. During his time in both of these positions, he worked collaboratively with university and community leaders to ensure students had a voice and were kept engaged in institutional governance.
  • Ann Goodnight of Raleigh as a member at-large. Goodnight has been an advocate for children and education for more than 25 years. She is a co-founder and board member of Cary Academy and a trustee of North Carolina State University. She serves as chair of the Goodnight Educational Foundation, an active board member for myFutureNC, and serves on the board of directors of the GSK Foundation. In addition, Goodnight also serves on the boards of the YMCA of the Triangle and the NC Science Festival.
  • Clifford A. Jones Sr. of Charlotte as a member at-large. Jones has served as the senior pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte since 1982. Jones previously served on the Winston-Salem State University Board of Trustees.
  • Gary Locklear of Pembroke as a member at-large. Locklear is a retired Superior Court judge. He is currently working part-time with the Robeson County Attorney’s Office. Locklear has previously served on the UNC Pembroke Board of Trustees.
  • Sen. Gladys Robinson of Greensboro as a member at-large. Robinson has just been elected to her seventh term in the state Senate. She is first vice chair of the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus. Robinson previously served on the UNC Board of Governors for 10 years and now serves as the North Carolina/South Carolina co-chair of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators Region V and the Governor’s State Health Coordinating Council.
  • Karen Popp of Chapel Hill as a member at-large. Popp is a partner at the global law firm Sidley Austin LLP, where she is an international lawyer and co-leader of her practice group. Popp is the former chair of UNC Charlotte’s Board of Trustees and Foundation Board. She was the president of the UNC Law Alumni Association and a founding member of the Higher Education Works Foundation. Popp was the first female student body president in the UNC System. Popp has previously served as a commercial litigator at Sullivan and Cromwell in New York City, associate White House counsel to President Clinton, attorney in the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice, and a federal prosecutor in New York City.
  • Cressie Thigpen Jr. of Raleigh as a member at-large. Thigpen served as a special Superior Court judge and on the N.C. Court of Appeals. He served as the first African-American president of the N.C. State Bar in 1999. He is a former chair of the North Carolina Central University Board of Trustees and previously served on the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.
  • John Townsend of New York as a member at-large. A native of Lumberton, Townsend moved to New York in 1982 where he spent his professional career at Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette, Goldman Sachs, and Tiger Management. He has served on the Board of Trustees of UNC-Chapel Hill and currently serves as the chair of the UNC Investment Fund, which manages the endowments of UNC-Chapel Hill and other system institutions. Townsend also serves as chair of the current UNC-Chapel Hill Capital Campaign, which will conclude this year.
  • Brad Wilson of Raleigh as a member at-large. Wilson is CEO emeritus of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina. He served on the UNC Board of Governors for 16 years and served as chair for four years. A graduate of Appalachian State University, Wake Forest Law School, and Duke University, he has served as an executive in residence at Wake Forest University and N.C. A&T State University. He also served as an adjunct faculty member at UNC-Chapel Hill.