Ever since 1789, when UNC-Chapel Hill was founded, North Carolina taxpayers have been very generous to public higher education. North Carolina’s colleges and universities receive annual appropriations of more than $4 billion. And on a per-student basis, UNC schools receive more public funding than almost any other schools in the nation. In return for their generous support, taxpayers deserve transparent and accountable university governance, including information about how, when, and why decisions are made.
But that isn’t always the case. Back in 2015, I pointed out the difficulties of attending a UNC Board of Governors meeting:
“UNC Board of Governors meetings are hard to navigate for the uninitiated, such as a member of the public. The committee rooms are small, spread out, and poorly labeled. All the people who attend the meetings seem to know each other. Finding a place to sit in the boardroom often means arriving an hour before the meeting begins. And if you don’t get a seat, you’re out of luck.”
We’re in better shape now than we were then; the UNC Board of Governors live-streams all its meetings. But that’s not true of college and university boards across the state. And finding additional board materials, like minutes or agendas, can still be difficult.
Currently, several of the boards of trustees in the UNC System lack essential transparency. For example, Appalachian State University’s Board of Trustees website provides just one generic email address for the board. Very few boards allow time for public comment. And no boards in the UNC System take roll call votes at in-person meetings, making it difficult to hold members accountable for their actions.
The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal released a policy brief on June 19, 2023, outlining how North Carolina can solve these transparency problems as well as model legislation on the issue.
Key recommendations presented in “Blueprint for Reform: University Governance” include:
Accessibility of Contact Information: Urging universities to make staff and board members’ email addresses easily accessible online, facilitating transparent and open communication between stakeholders.
Public Availability of Mailing Addresses: Encouraging the disclosure of board members’ office or university mailing addresses, promoting accessibility and accountability to the broader university community.
Recording and Posting of Meetings: Advocating for the recording and online posting of all publicly held meetings — including committee, subcommittee, and special meetings — to provide transparency and facilitate public scrutiny.
Advance Public Notices: Requiring universities to make meeting notices publicly available at least one week in advance, allowing stakeholders to prepare and participate effectively.
Timely Availability of Meeting Minutes: Urging universities to make meeting minutes publicly available as soon as they are approved, ensuring transparency and accountability in board decisions.
Roll-Call Voting and Online Publication: Recommending the adoption of roll-call voting during board meetings and providing these records online in the meeting minutes, fostering transparency and accountability.
Orientation and Ongoing Training: Promoting the provision of comprehensive orientation and ongoing training programs for board members, equipping them with the necessary skills and knowledge to fulfill their responsibilities effectively.
Public Comment Periods: Advocating for dedicated time during full board meetings to hear public comments, allowing diverse voices to be heard and considered in decision-making processes.
The Martin Center’s model legislation, The Higher Education Governance Transparency Act, would codify those reforms. Establishing uniform standards for university governing boards would make their activities and decision-making processes more transparent. It would also ensure that board members are held accountable to the public and to the General Assembly that appoints them.
Our colleges and universities serve thousands of North Carolina students every year, funded by billions in taxpayer dollars. It’s time to ensure that board governance is transparent and accountable.