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Dive Brief:

  • North Carolina’s Legislature should allow the minority political party to appoint some members of the University of North Carolina System governing board, according to new recommendations from a state commission.
  • The Commission on the Governance of Public Universities, established by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper last year to study political interference within the UNC system and its institutions, released preliminary suggestions on Monday. Its full report will come “in the coming weeks,” Cooper’s office said.
  • The panel also urged state lawmakers to broaden the size of the system’s and colleges’ governing bodies, lengthen board members’ terms from four to eight years, and restrict members to a single term. 

Dive Insight:

Several states have faced growing accusations that their public college systems have become politicized — and higher education pundits offer North Carolina as a prime example.

In a somewhat unusual model, state legislators pick the voting members of the UNC system governing board entirely, when typically boards are a mix of lawmaker and gubernatorial appointments. Republicans, who dominate the North Carolina Legislature, have spent the last decade or so installing those with similar ideologies to the system board, bringing accusations of partisanship. 

Political battles have boiled over at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill flagship campus. In 2021, the board there initially declined to vote on giving tenure to Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who then wound up turning down UNC-Chapel Hill for a tenured position at Howard University, a historically Black institution in Washington, D.C. 

Cooper in November formed the commission to help combat the politicization. It is led by two former UNC system presidents, Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings. 

The group’s initial recommendations include creating a Center of Higher Education Governance, which would “optimize the use of good governance principles in higher education” throughout North Carolina and the U.S.

It also suggested expanding the number of seats on the UNC system board from 24 to between 32 and 36, which it says would increase diversity on the board — geographic and otherwise. Every college trustee board should have 15 members, the commission said.

Lobbyists and politicians also shouldn’t be eligible to serve on boards until a year after they’ve left those respective positions, it said. 

Changes to system governance would require buy-in from state Republicans, whose leaders previously derided the commission as a political stunt. Republican lawmakers recently proposed a bill that would largely hand over the power to select system governing board members to the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore. The draft legislation would also expand the number of seats on the system board to 28.