Amid questions about legislative interference in the actions of the UNC Board of Governors, the board voted Friday to make records of its controversial Oct. 30 meeting available for review by members of the General Assembly.
The decision was prompted following questions about the board’s closed-meeting vote raising pay for 12 chancellors in the UNC system. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, requested that the Board of Governors provide access to audio recordings, agendas, and minutes from the session.
The request was made pursuant to G.S. 143-318-10, the state’s open meetings law, according to Andrew Tripp, Berger’s general counsel.
While most board members supported disclosing the information to Berger and Moore, some objected, saying the legislature should distance itself from UNC proceedings.
“I think what has been one of the keys to preserving academic excellence here, has been the insulation of the university from political control,” said board member Joe Knott. “That is the role of the Board of Governors. We don’t have any pay. We’re not running for office. We’re all volunteers, and I fear that …what I view as an intrusion by the legislature is a dangerous precedent.”
As part of his argument, Knott mentioned an alleged attempt by an unnamed member of the legislature to unduly influence the selection of the university system’s president. Former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings was named to succeed president Tom Ross at an Oct. 16 “emergency” meeting of the board. Knott refused to answer further questions about the statement, and other board members contradicted Knott’s suggestion that state lawmakers are interfering with board proceedings.
“I’ve felt no push from anyone to make decisions based upon [politics],” said board member and former state Sen. Thom Goolsby. “If I had, I would leave the board…no one has given me any direction or demands.”
Amanda Martin, general counsel of the North Carolina Press Association, said that the General Assembly’s request for access to meeting details is not unlawful, and that by all appearances, the majority of proceedings during the board’s Oct. 30 meeting should not have taken place in a closed session.
“My understanding is that this was not really an employee-by-employee discussion about performance,” Martin said. “Even if it were a person-by-person discussion about performance, my belief is that the decision to give raises or bonuses needed to be made in an open session, because there’s no exemption under the law that explicitly permits that kind of closed session vote or approval.”
Board member David Powers told Carolina Journal that the Oct. 30 meeting did in fact include confidential information that required private discussion.
“I’ve not really been understanding the uproar about our debate in closed session because it was definitely about confidential personnel information,” Powers said. “It was a closed issue.”
Powers said he supports fully releasing information to state lawmakers, however, since board members are appointed as representatives of the state’s taxpayers.
“I don’t think we should have discussions about individual professor salaries or anything like that in open session,” Powers said. “Other than that, I think the public should have complete clarity in what we do. And I think, for the most part, our meetings are very open.”
Detailed minutes of the board’s Oct. 30 session will not be made available to the general public, but the board announced that it would disclose a public record of votes and a general summary of the meeting.
Further discussion of closed meeting policies will take place at the board’s Dec. 11 meeting in Chapel Hill.
Kari Travis (@karilynntravis) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.