News: CJ Exclusives

UNC Board of Governors leader: Everything is fine

UNC Board of Governors Chairman-Elect Harry Smith (Photo courtesy of the University of North Carolina System)
UNC Board of Governors Chairman-Elect Harry Smith (Photo courtesy of the University of North Carolina System)

The relationship between the University of North Carolina’s president and Board of Governors is strong, not strained, the board’s leading member said after the withdrawal of UNC President Margaret Spellings’ nominee for the open chancellorship at Western Carolina University.

The statement follows a July 12 board meeting in which members were scheduled to vote on the candidate. Carolina Journal during the meeting was outside the boardroom of the UNC System offices and heard raised voices during the two-hour closed session.

Board members didn’t vote on Spellings’ nominee and offered no insight into their discussion after returning to open session to adjourn. Those physically present for the meeting, including Spellings, appeared agitated as they left the boardroom.

Spellings’ candidate for WCU chancellor nixed his candidacy July 16. Information about the nominee wasn’t made public.

UNC is looking for the best possible candidate, and the board presently has almost no say in the selection process, said board member Marty Kotis, noting his statement as personal opinion. The governors historically have taken a passive, “rubber stamp” role in leadership confirmations, he told CJ.

“Everybody on the board is polite and respectful, and that’s great. But if that leads to just rubber stamping, that’s not appropriate. We’re here to govern,” Kotis said.

“We’ve got to be willing to speak our minds. We’ve got to be willing to have open and honest discussions.”

The BOG will make some major changes, said Harry Smith, who in May was unanimously elected to succeed Lou Bissette, the board’s outgoing chairman. Overhauling UNC’s chancellor election process is Smith’s first major leap into revising university operations.

Search committees now pick candidates for chancellor positions. Those bodies normally include a university’s board of trustees, alumni, faculty, staff, students, and community members. When a search begins, the board of trustees submits names to the president’s office. The UNC system president approves the list.

It’s unclear how the BOG will change that cycle, but “it’s gonna be a much, much more strenuous process in hiring our CEOs,” Smith said.

Nontraditional candidates, especially those with business acumen, appeal to most of the board members. Governors may also look for talent inside the system, although the board is uncertain about how that could work, he said.

Smith, a businessman from Greenville, prioritizes university sustainability, especially over the next 100 years, he said. The board must hire only the best leaders for UNC.

With 28 board members from a variety of backgrounds, debate is expected, and will provide a “little bit of a different approach,” Smith said.  

No bad blood exists between Spellings and the board, he said, and accountability and transparency are values both entities share.

“My goal is to make Margaret the most successful president in history,” Smith said. “I serve at the will of the board. I’m always going to engage the board — and the officers — and I’m going to work in a really healthy manner with the president and her team.”

“It’ll be a little bit of a different approach, not that the past approach was bad, but it’s going to be a lot more teamwork.”

Members will shake up the search process until they get it right, but the project should be complete by September, Smith said. The BOG then will consider new candidates for the WCU chancellorship.

The WCU chancellor’s position became open June 17. Former Chancellor David Belcher, a leader beloved by many in the UNC community, died after a two-year battle with brain cancer.