News: CJ Exclusives

Politics affecting members’ decisions, UNC Board of Governors chair writes

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette. (CJ photo by Kari Travis)
UNC Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette. (CJ photo by Kari Travis)

The University of North Carolina’s governing body allows politics to seep into its decision making — a bad habit, Board of Governors chairman Lou Bissette says.

It’s always been a challenge for board members to balance freedom and accountability, but today that challenge is greater than ever, he wrote in a recent column for the Higher Education Works Foundation.

“As a Board, we must … refrain from any desire to intervene too directly and focus on our responsibility to improve an already excellent System by setting clear policies and expectations, and empowering our President, chancellors, faculty, and staff to meet them.”

Bissette’s comments follow an interesting year for the BOG. This past fall the board voted to block UNC Law School’s Center for Civil Rights from entering into lawsuits. The N.C. State Bar later revealed the center operated illegally.

The ban evoked outrage from center supporters. The center’s executive director, Ted Shaw, called one Republican member a “moving assassin,” and he accused others of political agenda and racism.

A handful of board members said the ban was an administrative overreach, stating the board shouldn’t interfere with university operations.

Internal conflict persists. In September, 15 board members sent a letter to Bissette and UNC President Margaret Spellings complaining of failed communication and and lack of collaboration.

While Bissette’s editorial didn’t directly address these events, he pointed to a need for unity across the 24-member body.

“We must operate as a united board, focused on providing oversight, ensuring accountability and setting system policy while allowing our President, chancellors, faculty and staff to do their job.”

Partisanship and overreach isn’t a problem, board member Thom Goolsby told Carolina Journal. Goolsby was one of the 15 members who signed the September letter to Bissette and Spellings.

“I’ve never thought of it in any way as a partisan entity. I’ve always seen it as board members whose job it is to try to do what’s best for the students in the system as a whole.”

“We’re talking about making sure that state dollars and tuition dollars are well spent. That’s all. I don’t approach anything with a political agenda. I approach it with a belief system … but I don’t feel like I operate under any political guidance. I’m just trying to do what’s best based upon what I believe.”

The board’s involvement in the Center for Civil Rights case was entirely appropriate, he added. The center was operating outside the law, so board members acted.

“All we try to do is enact policies that fall within our purview that help the university system and steer it in what we believe to be the right direction.”