The plotline running through all those episodes — and still more unfolding — is control of a prestigious public university in a state with deep partisan divisions. Now, debate is intensifying over the power Republican legislative leaders exert at UNC-Chapel Hill through appointments to its Board of Trustees and the state university system’s Board of Governors. One side says it wants to restore order to the flagship; the other fears micromanagement with a right-wing agenda. It is one of the most acute examples of campus culture wars flaring around the country.
Democratic leaders, including Gov. Roy Cooper, are shut out of board appointments under a legal framework not found in most states. Faculty and some prominent alumni and former trustees are joining forces to promote an overhaul in an initiative they call Coalition for Carolina.
“The governance system in our university system is broken, and we have to fix it before long-term damage is done,” Cooper said. The governor said he called Hannah-Jones twice in May and June to express support for her during her tenure battle. The future of the flagship is personal for him, said Cooper, a two-time graduate of Chapel Hill.
“Now is the time to step back and look at the ways that trustees and members of the Board of Governors are appointed,” he said. “We have to broaden the spectrum of people and entities that should be making appointments to those boards.”
In most states, the governor helps shape the boards that oversee public flagship universities. Gubernatorial appointees control those boards in Maryland, Virginia and many other states. Many legislatures are empowered to confirm appointments or fill certain board seats directly, but few dominate the process.
Under North Carolina law, the legislature selects all 24 voting members of the Board of Governors. That board oversees the president of the UNC system and holds the power to approve the hiring and firing of university chancellors. It also appoints the majority of trustees on boards at Chapel Hill and 15 other state universities.
Boards of trustees have final say on faculty tenure and advise chancellors on management of their campuses. The legislature also appoints some trustees. Cooper appoints none. Republican lawmakers stripped the governor of trustee-naming power after he was first elected in 2016.
State Sen. Phil Berger (R), leader of that chamber, dismissed the governor’s argument for overhaul. Berger noted that Cooper was in the state Senate years ago when Democrats held power. “He was perfectly content with how the Board of Governors was selected when he was doing the selecting,” Berger said. The 16-university system, Berger said, is working well on the whole.
“What’s happening at those other 15 campuses?” Berger said. “We’re not seeing anything like what’s happening at Chapel Hill.” He said a “unique situation” at the flagship was producing tumult. He blamed that on faculty and the administration of UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz.
Berger said he had opposed tenure for Hannah-Jones. He reiterated to The Washington Post a view he had expressed recently to the News & Observer of Raleigh: that UNC-Chapel Hill seems “rudderless.” He likened it to a ship in a harbor “bumping into things all the time. It’s a problem.”
Guskiewicz declined to comment.
On July 1, the day after trustees voted 9 to 4 to grant the job-protection status of tenure to Hannah-Jones, the chancellor declared in a statement that he was committed to academic freedom and excellence in teaching, research and service. “I have worked hard to navigate a complex shared governance model which I respect and believe has an important role to play in higher education if we are to build a stronger partnership with the public,” he said.
Days later, Hannah-Jones, a New York Times writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2020 for her essay in the 1619 Project on slavery and U.S. history, rejected the offer from Chapel Hill and announced that she would become a professor at Howard University instead. She issued a scathing critique of UNC-Chapel Hill’s handling of her case, including an unexplained delay of several months in the tenure vote, and declared that the governing boards were unrepresentative of the state and beholden to “the whims of political power.”
Mimi V. Chapman, a professor of social work and chair of the university faculty, said the tenure battle illuminated “an ongoing problem — the inability of this campus to make autonomous decisions.” Chapman said it is time to rethink the structure of the boards that oversee the university.
She is mindful of the risks of speaking out. Faculty do not want to alienate powerful figures who steer more than $500 million a year in state appropriations to the university. But Chapman said her proposal for the Coalition for Carolina has prompted an outpouring of support. She said she has not heard from anyone who thinks the system should stay as is.
“I think it’s at a breaking point,” Chapman said. Some have even suggested that the university break away from the UNC system, she said, though it is not at all clear how that could happen.
Lamar Richards, 20, student body president of UNC-Chapel Hill, said the tenure fight could undermine the flagship’s efforts to diversify the student body, faculty and staff. Like Hannah-Jones, Richards is Black. He also serves on the Board of Trustees — because of the office he holds — and he helped lead the charge to obtain a vote on tenure for her. “I feel on behalf of students of color the lack of support from the university at all levels,” he said.
There are some reports of disenchanted faculty leaving the university or deciding not to seek jobs there. But Chapel Hill is likely to remain in high demand among students. More than 53,000 applied to enter as freshmen in 2021, up 21 percent from the year before.
Opened in 1795, UNC-Chapel Hill helped establish the very idea of a state university. The UNC system, headquartered here, is much younger, about 50 years old. It encompasses the flagship as well as North Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T State University (the nation’s largest historically Black university) and numerous regional institutions.
As is true in many states, there is a natural tension between a flagship with global aspirations and the less-famous schools that are the system’s workhorses. That complicates the situation for UNC-Chapel Hill as it seeks to strengthen relations with the Board of Governors and the legislature.
System President Peter Hans said the 30,000-student flagship is thriving by most measures — enrollment, retention and graduation rates, affordability and research capacity, among others. UNC-Chapel Hill ranks 28th on U.S. News & World Report’s list of top national universities, public and private. In-state tuition and fees total about $9,000 for the coming school year, not counting housing and meals, one of the lowest rates among state flagships.
Chapel Hill’s public peers include the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and University of California campuses in Berkeley and Los Angeles. Those schools, too, face perennial scrutiny and sometimes scorching criticism. It comes with the territory.
Hans said he wants to tamp down the drama.
“I believe Chapel Hill can do a better job of managing controversies,” Hans said. “And I’ve shared that with Chancellor Guskiewicz.”
Guskiewicz, a neuroscientist and expert on concussions, took office in 2019 as the university was wrestling with the Silent Sam uproar. One of the final acts of his predecessor, Carol Folt, was to order removal of the pedestal where the statue had stood for generations in a central spot on campus. The Confederate monument was a flash point for students and faculty who viewed it as a symbol of white supremacy contradicting the values of a modern, multiracial university. Folt’s action that January put her at odds with leaders of the Board of Governors, who were considering what to do with the toppled statue.
The Silent Sam saga took more twists and turns in November 2019 when it emerged that the board had agreed to pay $2.5 million to a Confederate heritage group that would take ownership of the statue under a legal settlement. A few months later a judge voided the system’s deal with the Sons of Confederate Veterans after students and faculty challenged it.
In spring 2020, the university pivoted abruptly to remote teaching as the pandemic rocked schools across the country. Early that August, it launched one of the country’s most aggressive reopening plans as it brought students back into residence halls and resumed a significant level of in-person teaching. That plan, coordinated with backing from the UNC system, unraveled as viral infections surged among students on and off campus. The university was forced to halt face-to-face instruction, sending many students home. Critics said officials within the university and the system had misjudged the public health threat.
Meanwhile, the university’s journalism school was seeking to recruit one of its star graduates, Hannah-Jones, to a professorship endowed by the Knight Foundation. That effort zigzagged behind the scenes. Faculty supported tenure for her. Trustees held up her case, even though predecessors who held the Knight chair had been granted tenure. Hannah-Jones then agreed to a five-year contract without tenure. But the matter erupted in May when details of the arrangement were made public and critics accused the university of mistreating a Black woman with stellar credentials.
The 1619 Project won wide acclaim for raising fresh questions about the framing of U.S. history, but some historians objected to certain passages about race and slavery in the Hannah-Jones essay. Former president Donald Trump and other prominent Republicans contended that the project undermines patriotism.
Former trustee Charles G. “Chuck” Duckett, who recently left the board, told The Post he had raised questions about the Hannah-Jones tenure proposal in January. Duckett said his questions were not about politics or the 1619 Project. Rather, he said, they were about policy. “I didn’t understand how you grant tenure from Day One to someone who’s never taught a class,” he said. Ultimately, he concluded that the university did follow policy, and he voted for tenure.
Looking back, Duckett said, “I think all people involved could have handled it better in some fashion.” UNC-Chapel Hill is one of the world’s best universities, Duckett said. But “it has some self-inflicted wounds.”
The episode continues to reverberate. Two trustees who opposed tenure for Hannah-Jones ascended July 14 to board leadership. David L. Boliek Jr., an attorney in Fayetteville, is now chair of the trustees, and John P. Preyer, a businessman from Chapel Hill, is vice chair. They declined requests for interviews.
“All current members of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees are proud graduates of the University who volunteer their time because they love their alma mater,” Boliek said in a statement. “As a Board we are committed to educating students to be leaders and keeping UNC-Chapel Hill affordable for all North Carolinians.”
In the aftermath of the Hannah-Jones case, Chapman and others heard that Guskiewicz might be ousted. Many faculty disagreed with the chancellor on various matters, but they worried more about who might take his place. Any replacement would be subject to the approval of the Board of Governors. On July 14, a faculty leadership group approved an emergency resolution of confidence in Guskiewicz. The resolution declared that a change in leadership “would be deeply destabilizing.” But no shake-up has occurred.
Faculty worry, too, about why the Board of Governors recently declined to reappoint a UNC-Chapel Hill law professor, Eric Muller, to a third term on a separate board overseeing the nonprofit UNC Press. It struck professors as another surprising intervention after the Hannah-Jones case. Muller, an outspoken critic of the Silent Sam settlement, had been unanimously recommended through normal channels to continue as chair of the press board. Muller said academic freedom is in jeopardy when “some person, or people within the governing board, steps in and starts to micromanage and second-guess the considered judgment of the scholars.”
Randall C. Ramsey, chair of the Board of Governors, declined to address questions at length. “We are all concentrating very hard on improving the quality of education in our state,” Ramsey said July 21 in a brief conversation between committee sessions as the board was meeting here.
Some on the board say the attention on politics is overblown. “What you read isn’t what we do,” said James L. Holmes Jr., chair of the budget and finance committee. Holmes was one of the board members involved in the Silent Sam settlement. He said he is focused on work such as clearing a statewide backlog of campus renovations. “I’m trying to fix buildings,” he said. There are no labels on university buildings, he said, that proclaim “built by a Democrat” or “built by a Republican.”
Art Pope, a prominent conservative businessman and former state budget director during a Republican administration, joined the board last year. He denied any involvement in the Hannah-Jones case. Pope dismisses complaints about the Republican monopoly on board appointments. Democrats were once in the majority in the legislature, he said. “During that time, they appointed Democrats. That’s the way it’s been.”
Some Republicans see it differently. W. Louis Bissette Jr., a Republican who chaired the Board of Governors from 2015 to 2018, wrote last year for the advocacy group Higher Ed Works that an ideal board would have more demographic and political diversity. “No single entity should have total control over boards as important as these,” Bissette wrote.
As of now, two-thirds of voting members on the board are White men, according to an analysis from the News & Observer, and about 20 percent are people of color. One member, appointed by the Republicans, is a Democrat. Bissette said in a telephone interview that those numbers represented some progress. “The system, in my estimation, needs to be run on a nonpolitical basis,” Bissette said.
Hans, a former aide to Republican politicians, said much the same. “I’m out of the business of politics. I’m into the business of higher education and supporting our students.” Hans, who graduated from Chapel Hill in 1991, served 12 years on the Board of Governors after a Democratic-led state Senate first appointed him in 2003. He has been system president since 2020 after leading the state’s community college system.
Dramas at his alma mater are nothing new and may well continue, Hans said, reflecting the nation’s political polarization, racial reckoning and pandemic fears. He does not relish damage control but is resigned to it. “These controversies are going to happen,” Hans said. “The next controversy is probably only around the corner.”