RALEIGH — A debate Thursday over legislation that would cut UNC’s governing body from 32 to 24 members led to arguments over proportionate representation for the system’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Democrats objected to a final vote on House Bill 39, which came after a 41-4 preliminary vote in favor of the legislation, delaying any resolution until Feb. 20.

UNC’s current board lacks sufficient numbers of African-Americans and women, and a cut in membership would exacerbate their absence, some senators said.  

The board comprises 26 men and six women. Four members are African-Americans.

Current law allows House and Senate leaders to select all 32 board members. Under H.B. 39, the legislature would maintain that appointment power. The size of the board would go down as the terms of current members expired, so no one now on the board would be replaced immediately if H.B. 39 became law.

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, proposed an amendment which, he said, would make appointments less political. The proposal would have changed board terms from three four-year terms to a single eight-year term, mandated bipartisan representation, and allowed the governor to make a third of the board’s appointments.

“If you believe that partisan politics should play no role in higher education in our state, you should support this amendment,” Chaudhuri said.

Majority Senate Republicans disagreed.

“That was quite the amendment, senator,” Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, said to Chaudhuri during floor debate. “Actually the bill is [about] nothing more than reducing the number [of board members], and your amendment changes the entire legislation.”

“If you believe that,” Rabon told all senators, “I would encourage you to vote against the amendment.”

The amendment failed, 33-11.

The state Constitution charges the legislature with oversight of public education and demands UNC board members be selected with experience and diversity in mind, Rabon said.

“That sums it up,” he stated.  

There’s no lack of diverse opinions across UNC’s board, member Marty Kotis said during a Feb. 15 interview with Mark Shiver on What Matters, a podcast from the Freedom Action Network.

“When we’re sitting in [board meetings], you really sometimes couldn’t tell who is a Republican or a Democrat, based on the commentary,” Kotis said.

“The race issue should be out the door, and we should be focused on running the UNC system,” he told Carolina Journal. “Frankly, I think it’s kind of sexist or racist to say you have to be a certain color or gender to represent or think through [a particular] perspective.”

Members should be chosen based on their work ethic, skills and knowledge, he said.

“For me, it’s more about finding people that can add value in terms of different thoughts; how to effectively manage construction costs, or how to manage online education, or how to balance a budget.”

Board members should focus more on representing the entire system than in touting one perspective, he added. 

Senate Democrats also objected to the legislation’s swift introduction and adoption.

No UNC board members have come forward in support of the bill or have signaled a need for reforms, said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, stating that he’s unsure of what the legislature is trying to fix.

“Maybe if there’s a problem, it’s not in the number [of members], it’s in the leadership,” McKissick said. “I really think we ought to hear from the Board of Governors.”

The board has publicly declared itself neutral on the subject, member David Powers told CJ in a Feb. 14 interview.

Powers and Kotis have expressed — not officially or on behalf of the board — support for H.B. 39.

Kotis also noted that he’s heard no opposition from other board members.

A board with fewer members may enhance discussion and collaboration, Powers told CJ.

“When you get to that large of a board, it’s very difficult for everyone to weigh in on an item. If we each spend five minutes talking, that makes for more than two hours of time,” said Kotis.

“The board is too big, and at that size we really become more of a rubber stamp where the UNC General Administration manages us more than we manage them.