Education

UNC board chairman resigns, citing fatigue and the need to focus on his businesses

Harry Smith will step down as chairman of the UNC Board of Governors on Oct. 1, opting for a less time-consuming and emotionally exhausting position as a regular member of the board, he said Tuesday.

“It’s a tough gig,” Smith said in a telephone interview with The News & Observer. “I don’t have the energy to lead anymore. That’s the bottom line.”

Smith, a developer and entrepreneur from Greenville, was first named to the board in 2013 and served as vice chairman before becoming chairman in May 2018.

Smith said he has been anticipating stepping down as chairman for several months, and felt the time was right to do so now in order to give the next chairman time to acclimate to the job before a new UNC System president is named next spring.

Smith presided over a turbulent time for the UNC System as a whole and for some of its individual campuses. He has been praised as a straight-talker with a passion for his alma mater, East Carolina University, and for students from economically distressed areas across the state. He also has been criticized for being a micro-manager who sometimes overstepped the bounds of his position as leader of the system’s governing board and who clashed publicly with other university leaders.

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UNC President Margaret Spellings is pictured speaking with at the UNC Board of Governors chairman Harry Smith at the beginning of an emergency session the board called Friday, October 26, 2018 in Chapel Hill, N.C. The board was meeting to discuss her departure package during a closed session Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

In a statement released by the UNC System, Interim President Bill Roper said, “We are grateful for Harry’s service, strong leadership, and selfless commitment to both the UNC System and the Board of Governors. I have valued his support, leadership, and friendship throughout this past year, and look forward to his continuing contributions on the Board of Governors.”

Under Smith’s leadership, the statement said, the System has seen record enrollment growth and implemented the N.C. Promise program at Western Carolina University, Elizabeth City State University and UNC Pembroke. The statement credited Smith with guiding Roper’s transition into his position after the departure in March of former system president Margaret Spellings, and for creating two new Board of Governors committees dedicated to supporting historically minority-serving institutions, as well as veterans and students affiliated with the military.

Smith, 50, joined the board at the request of Phil Berger after Berger was elected president pro tem of the N.C. Senate. Smith, a registered Republican, first said he wasn’t interested in the job, according to reports at the time. But he came to believe that his experience as a business executive and his interest in public education could be put to good use on behalf of the state’s 17 UNC campuses.

Smith served as chairman of the Committee on Budget and Finance, and at board meetings showed a keen interest in keeping down the cost of attending North Carolina’s public universities.

At times, however, other board members said they feared that Smith was too interested in some of the workings of individual schools and that he tried to use the power of his position to satisfy his personal grievances.

Changing leadership

During Smith’s tenure, the system has seemed under a constant state of fluctuating leadership.

UNC System President Margaret Spellings resigned in October 2018, just three years after replacing former President Tom Ross, who was forced out by the Board of Governors. The Board scolded Spellings when she asked Gov. Roy Cooper to intervene on the controversy over Silent Sam, the Confederate monument on the Chapel Hill campus, to get around a state law preventing its removal.

Protesters pulled down the statue in August 2018.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt resigned in January, in part because she was frustrated over the Board of Governors’ reluctance to say it would not return Silent Sam to campus.

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UNC Board of Governors chairman Harry Smith, right, shakes hands with UNC Interim President Dr. Bill Roper following the Board of Governors meeting on Friday, January 25, 2019 in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

In March, Cecil Staton, chancellor at East Carolina University, announced his departure from the school after three years. He said at a news conference that he did not initiate the separation, but added that he had signed a “non-disparagement” clause and that he would not criticize anyone involved in the decision.

Board of Governors member Steve Long said at the time that Smith had wanted to get rid of Staton since Staton had turned down a proposal of Smith’s that would have required some ECU students to live in housing that Smith wanted to develop.

Smith said he was not involved in Staton’s departure.

A large commitment

On Tuesday, Smith said he began thinking seriously of leaving the chairman’s position when he opened his own private equity firm several months ago, which he said is in addition to two other businesses he runs.

Being board chairman, he said, is a 40- to 50-hour-per-week commitment that comes “with a lot of emotions and challenges. It comes with board politics, and system politics, and Raleigh politics, and all that comes at you every single day. And it’s gotten worse.

“It’s not just the policy to move the UNC System forward,” he said. “It’s Silent Sam, and it’s school shootings and it’s hurricanes. You’re in the middle of every bit of that.

“You add it all up, and it takes the wind out of you.”

The board is about to begin its search for a new UNC System president, a process it hopes to complete by next spring.

Sitting Board of Governors members cannot be named system presidents, and Smith said he had been asked many times on Tuesday if his resignation as board chairman was a step toward seeking the system president’s job. He said he thought he could do the job of the president, but that for now, he would like to spend time with his wife, Tammy, and tending to his businesses.

Smith’s current term on the board ends in 2021. His two-year term as chair would have ended next year.

The Board of Governors will have to choose another chairman, and Smith said he hopes it will be vice chairman Randy Ramsey.

Ramsey, president of Jarrett Bay Boatworks in Beaufort, could not immediately be reached for comment

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.
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