CHAPEL HILL — Stay in your lanes and keep pushing forward, the outgoing chairman of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors said during an unusually emotional meeting to elect new board officers.
Lou Bissette, an Asheville attorney and the BOG’s current leader, delivered a bittersweet speech before the board Thursday, May 24, making way for Chairman-Elect Harry Smith, who will assume the role in July. Members Randall Ramsey and Pearl Burris-Floyd also were elected as the board’s vice-chairman and secretary, respectively. All three members ran unopposed and received unanimous support.
Bissette teared up while thanking BOG members for their dedication and hard work. His colleagues responded with a standing ovation.
The scene was a far cry from the board’s previous transfer of leadership.
Bissette led the board for nearly three years, weathering protests and politics, and riding out controversies he inherited from former BOG Chairman John Fennebresque. In late 2015, Fennebresque shook up BOG members and state legislators when he acted unilaterally to recruit now-UNC System President Margaret Spellings. His actions also triggered uproar among university administrators, faculty, and students.
Fennebresque resigned immediately after Spellings was elected to UNC’s highest office. When Bissette stepped to the helm, the board was reeling, facing public accusations of scheming and secrecy. Faculty and student protests — some disruptive and violent — followed.
Unlike Fennebresque, who allowed little discussion during tightly scripted meetings, Bissette welcomed more relaxed, sometimes rowdy debates. With the shift came some slip-ups. During Bissette’s first months, the board made some procedural mistakes, violating open meetings law and voting in closed session to raise chancellors’ salaries.
Legislators later decided the misstep was a mistake, and Bissette ensured all members of the board — including him — were well-schooled on North Carolina Open Meetings Law.
The goal was to rebuild trust and enact the best policies for the university, Bissette said.
“When John Fennebresque left it was a pretty crazy place around here, and I do feel that I’ve been able to contribute a little bit to the stability of the Board of Governors over that period of time,” Bissette said.
Spellings’ presidency, and UNC’s strategic plan for university success, highlight the legacy Bissette hopes he will leave, he told reporters.
Smith, now the board’s vice chairman, was not available for questioning after the board meeting.
The Greenville businessman has recently faced allegations that he tried to manipulate a development deal at N.C. Central University. A lawsuit alleges Smith, along with BOG member Darrell Allison and N.C. Central Chancellor Johnson Akinleye, made a shady deal to push up to $120 million in student housing contracts to a Raleigh land developer. The suit claims Smith was involved in the project, and was in secret meetings with the developer, Preiss Company of Raleigh. The bidding process was unfair, and didn’t allow other bids, it alleges.
The allegations are false, Smith stated. He and Allison were simply advising NCCU to get the best deal, he said.
The lawsuit was filed by Benjamin Durant, NCCU’s former vice chancellor for administration and finance. Durant was fired in January.
In 2016, Smith discussed a potential investment partnership with East Carolina University, proposing to buy an apartment complex near the university. The deal didn’t come together, and Smith later said “the optics are terrible,” due to the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“In hindsight, it wasn’t even a good idea to have the conversation. That was a regrettable mistake by me,” he told the Raleigh News and Observer. “I learned a valuable lesson from it, but I didn’t do anything malicious … everything was good intent.”
Smith is energetic with “an incredibly good mind,” Bissette said. The incoming leader should set priorities carefully so he can avoid being pulled in multiple directions.
“[Being chairman] an incredible job because it seems like something either good or bad is happening every day. You have to remember that [we’ve got great professionals] to handle operational items — from the president on down through our chancellors — who have been in this business a long time,” he said.
Bissette has expressed concern that some board members stray into university management — not the role of UNC’s governing body, he said.
The focus should be on policy, he said.
“The chairman of the board is not the chairman of the university. I always felt like my duty was to try to keep the board together as much as possible and push each other in the same direction so that you could accomplish these big [policy] items.”
The board also shouldn’t be involved in campus-level issues, Bissette said.
“You have to be very cognizant of those lanes and try to stay in them,” he said.
UNC administrators are relying on Smith’s deference and willingness to learn as he takes on his new role, Spellings told Carolina Journal.
“Harry is extremely bright, very energetic, very well informed, and comes from a place of great intentions,” Spellings said. “He’s a learner. And he’s really owned that he’s new to the public arena. He’s very much an operator, a business-oriented person, but he knows what he doesn’t know.”