The search for a new chancellor at Western Carolina University is exposing a growing and contentious divide between the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors and UNC President Margaret Spellings.
On July 12, the full board was slated to vote on a nominee for WCU’s chancellorship, an official agenda released July 11 stated. The contender, whose name wasn’t publicly disclosed, was nominated by Spellings.
After taking roll call, the board immediately went into closed session. Members were working remotely and met via teleconference. The meeting went on behind closed doors for more than two hours. Carolina Journal was stationed outside the boardroom in the lobby of the UNC System offices and heard raised voices coming from inside the meeting room.
Board members didn’t vote on Spellings’ nominee and offered no insight into their discussion after returning to open session for adjournment. Those physically present for the meeting, including Spellings, appeared agitated as they left the boardroom.
“The board will continue to discuss the WCU chancellor search process, and as new information becomes available and action is scheduled, we will update the public and most importantly the WCU community,” said UNC spokesman Josh Ellis, who works for Spellings.
The friction follows the election of a new chairman to UNC’s governing body.
Harry Smith, who in May was unanimously elected to succeed Lou Bissette as the body’s next chairman, is touting a new kind of regime, a stark contrast to Bissette’s tenure as board leader. Smith, a successful businessman from Greenville, has faced scrutiny for his tough, operational approach to governing UNC’s interests. The board leader has also encountered criticism for his involvement in a controversial 2016 real estate deal with officials from East Carolina University. He later abandoned the project and admitted the optics were poor.
Bissette, an Asheville attorney who led the board through some rocky terrain after former board Chairman John Fennebresque resigned, was known for his easygoing rule of the group’s often rowdy debates. Bissette called out the board’s political maneuvering and supported the fledgling presidency of Spellings, who took her seat as UNC’s leader in early 2016.
Those days may be fading.
CJ called, emailed, and texted multiple board members, including Smith. Two members, Thom Goolsby and Bob Rucho, declined to comment, citing confidentiality restrictions of the board’s closed session. No others responded by press time.
The WCU chancellor’s position became open June 17. Former Chancellor David Belcher died after a two-year battle with brain cancer.