News: Quick Takes

UNC’s Harry Smith resigns as board chair

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith speaks during the Sept. 20, 2019, BOG meeting.
UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith speaks during the Sept. 20, 2019, BOG meeting.

Harry Smith has resigned as chairman of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors. 

Smith on Tuesday, Sept. 24, announced his resignation, effective Oct. 1. 

“The growing professional demands of a new business venture require Mr. Smith to step down,” UNC spokesman Jason Tyson wrote in a statement. 

The Greenville businessman has been surrounded by turbulence since taking his seat as board chair in July 2018. 

Smith followed Lou Bissette, an Asheville lawyer who took up the role after former board Chair John Fennebresque resigned in 2015. Smith’s regime has seen much tension and politics, though the chairman has frequently said the board should focus on policy issues, and not on emotions.

Former UNC President Margaret Spellings resigned her post only months after Smith took his seat as leader of the UNC board. Interactions between the two were visibly tense. Bill Roper, former head of UNC Health Care, replaced Spellings as interim system president. 

“We are grateful for Harry’s service, strong leadership, and selfless commitment to both the UNC System and the Board of Governors,” Roper said in a statement. “I have valued his support, leadership, and friendship throughout this past year, and look forward to his continuing contributions on the Board of Governors.”

Former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt resigned in January after disagreements over how the system should handle Silent Sam, the campus’s felled Confederate statue. Former East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton resigned in March, saying he didn’t initiate his resignation: “There are some storms you cannot weather.” 

In an interview with WRAL, Smith said, “I’ve never one time said a negative, attacking thing about Cecil,” but public documents show Smith took issue with some of Staton’s decisions. 

Staton and Smith butted heads over a potential student housing investment in 2016. Smith also took issue with ECU’s athletics program, and, in an email to Reps. John Bell, R-Wayne, and Greg Murphy, R-Pitt, minced few words about the chancellor. Smith referred to a News & Observer op-ed column by Staton that argued the General Assembly’s budget shortchanged ECU.

“The comment Cecil chose to make about ECU having the large cut in funding with no explanation is completely inappropriate,” he wrote. “It’s been a scandalous couple of years at ECU that has and continues to embarrass our great university. Leaders take accountability and they don’t point the finger. I’m happy to sit down with Cecil and explain in great detail the many issues we have had under his leadership that he was in direct control over that has greatly hurt and divided ECU.”

Following Staton’s resignation, Kel Normann, a former member of the ECU Board of Trustees, told CJ he wasn’t reappointed to the board because he supported Staton. UNC needs better governance, he said.

“If the Board of Governors were to ask me right now, would I serve again, and say that they’re not going to accept the current slate [of appointees] for the ECU Board of Trustees … my answer would be ‘as long as Harry Smith is chair of the Board of Governors, I have no interest in serving.’”

Smith will remain a member of the BOG. Randy Ramsey, the board’s vice chair, should lead, and board members should support the change, Smith said.