A fractured UNC Board of Governors met for about four hours behind closed doors Friday at a meeting where members also talked with leading UNC presidential candidate Margaret Spellings, a former U.S. secretary of education in George W. Bush’s administration.
Board members were tight-lipped as they hustled out of the meeting. Through a UNC system spokeswoman, Chairman John Fennebresque said the sole focus of Friday’s discussion was the presidential search, and he had nothing else to say about it.
In an odd twist on a day of high drama, Spellings was spotted in the corner of the room as the board prepared to go into closed session. A photographer with the Raleigh liberal think tank N.C. Policy Watch took a photo of her before she was quickly ushered to an adjoining room. The photograph was posted online shortly thereafter.
The emergency meeting was at Cary software company SAS, where the board gathered to get an update on the search from the 11-member committee on the hunt for a successor to Tom Ross, 65, who will step down early next year at the request of the board.
One member, Marty Kotis, voted against the board going into closed session. Before the meeting, he had crafted an objection, saying there was no emergency that justified the short notice for the gathering. He said the emergency classification was “subterfuge.”
The meeting had created an uproar among Republican legislative leaders, who sent a letter to the board late Thursday saying the board meeting with only one candidate would be viewed as an attempt to circumvent the will of the General Assembly. Last month, the legislature passed a bill requiring that the search committee bring three names to the board for consideration. That bill has not been signed yet by Gov. Pat McCrory but will become law automatically at the end of the month unless McCrory vetoes it.
In a statement released Friday morning, the Board of Governors search committee said it would abide by the legislation. “As to the concerns expressed by President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and Speaker of the House Tim Moore in their October 15 letter to the Board of Governors, we are ensuring our process follows the law as amended, as well as Board policy.
“We fully understand President Berger’s and Speaker Moore’s view that the recently passed Senate Bill 670 requires that the full Board of Governors consider the names of at least three final candidates. We share their desire that the final selection not be hurried or made without consideration by the entire board.”
The meeting also had angered some board members, and several called for Fennebresque to resign. “No matter how qualified, anyone advanced under your chairmanship would be fruit from a poisonous tree,” Thom Goolsby, a board member and former state lawmaker, wrote in an email Thursday.
Fennebresque had hastily called the meeting without the standard 48-hour notice for a meeting of a public body. In an email, the reason for the emergency was expressed as the possibility that a promising candidate’s name could get out. Spellings’ name was published Thursday night by The News & Observer, based on information from three people with direct knowledge of the search.
Fighting in writing
A flurry of emails among members Thursday showed a board in disarray, with growing anger toward Fennebresque, even among those who considered Spellings an excellent candidate.
One member, Scott Lampe, wrote to the board, saying it was in the best interest for Fennebresque to step down.
“It frustrates me that we have come to this point,” said Lampe’s email, obtained by The News & Observer. “Our most important job is to select a President who can deliver a financially sustainable university that creates the workforce and members of civil society that our state and country deserve. By necessity, a search of this import must be done by a small group to protect the confidentiality of the candidates. The quality candidates we are looking for will not be part of a process that could adversely affect their current position. This does not excuse leadership from informing the other board members of the process and working diligently to make all the stakeholders a part of the process. There has been a complete failure in this regard. The legislature and board have lost confidence in the chairman and the search process. This lack of confidence has tainted the entire process.”
But, Lampe added, the candidate to be discussed Friday has “an impeccable résumé and glowing recommendations from all quarters including members of the search committee. I trust the judgment of many of the search committee.”
Vice Chairman Lou Bissette urged calm among the board members in an email Thursday.
“We have an (eminently) qualified candidate for the President of the UNC System who has been recommended by everyone from former President Bush and Senator Richard Burr to the President of SMU and the Chancellor of the University of Texas to name just a few,” he wrote, referring to Southern Methodist University. “I believe that she has the ability, energy and savvy to lead this System to the heights that we all envision for our beloved University. I think you will see that tomorrow when you meet her.”
Bissette admitted there had been shortcomings in the board’s leadership. “However, I ask that you not mix these two issues. It is simply too important to risk the future of the System,” he wrote. He said the leadership issue could be addressed in a separate process.
Bissette, also a member of the search panel, emphasized that the candidate was preferred by the entire committee.
Spellings, 57, was U.S. secretary of education from 2005 to 2009 under Bush and is now president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. As education secretary, she was a major proponent of the No Child Left Behind law and launched the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, an early effort that called for more accountability and affordability at the country’s colleges and universities.
She was a domestic policy adviser to Bush from 2001 to 2005. She is a Michigan native but was raised, educated and spent most of her career in Texas. She advised Bush when he was governor of Texas and previously held positions in the Texas Association of School Boards, Austin Community College and the Texas legislature. She has a degree in political science from the University of Houston.
The search committee has looked for months for the next president, who will lead the 17-campus public university system – considered a crown jewel in North Carolina and among the best in the United States.
The process has been plagued by board infighting and concern about the legislature’s action to set parameters for the consideration of finalists. At one point, the state House passed an amendment that would have required public disclosure of and debate about finalists. That was dropped after lobbying by board members.
Ross has been president for five years, and many have suggested that his ouster in January was politically motivated, though Fennebresque has strongly denied that. The chairman said it was time for a change in presidential leadership, but offered no other substantive reasons for Ross’ departure.
The next steps of the search process are unclear.
In its statement Friday morning, the search committee said: “While we understand media interest in the search for a new UNC system President, this is a confidential process and it would be inappropriate to publicly discuss details at this time.”
Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.