Battle brewing over top leadership appointments at UNC

Joel Brown Image
Sunday, January 8, 2023
Battle brewing over top leadership appointments at UNC
There's a new battle brewing over leadership at UNC System schools with Gov. Roy Cooper launching a new fight with Republicans at the legislature to win back power to appoint top-level leaders.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- There's a new battle brewing over leadership at UNC System schools. Gov. Roy Cooper launched a new battle with Republicans at the legislature to win back power to appoint top-level leaders.

Nearly a year and a half since the very public and political battle at UNC Chapel Hill over a tenured professorship for Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, Cooper told ABC11 in a year-end interview that his move to create a commission to evaluate the current appointment system for governance at UNC System schools was triggered in part by the embarrassing national headlines about the tenure controversy.

"It was certainly one of the things," Cooper said. "But (the decision) was building over time."


The governor's executive order establishing a special commission to evaluate how individuals are appointed to UNC System Boards of Trustees and the system's Board of Governors has been building for more than a decade.

It was 2010 when Republicans won back control of both chambers of the General Assembly. And weeks before Cooper took office, his Republican predecessor, Pat McCrory, effectively stripped Cooper of his power to appoint UNC System Boards of Trustees members.

Now, every member at the top level of university leadership is appointed by Republicans or Republican appointees.

"Right now, the leadership of our university system doesn't even come close to reflecting our racial, geographic, political diversity in North Carolina," Cooper said.

The top Republican in the state house, Speaker Tim Moore defends the appointments. In a statement, Moore said in part, "Our state constitution gives the legislature the sole responsibility to govern the university system."

Many conservative critics of UNC have long-believed liberal leaders held too much power on campus.


Conservative UNC professor Mark McNeilly co-authored last summer's survey of UNC System students' political views. The report assessed how free students felt to express their views. It concluded that conservative students faced distinct challenges: 83% reported concerns their peers would have lower opinions of them if they shared conservative viewpoints. Just 24% of liberal students said the same.

The survey found that 54% of conservative students say they've self-censored more than once.

"One of the things we want to be as a university is inclusive. And so I would say we're probably not being as inclusive about helping with conservative students," said McNeilly. "If you, if you have a primarily conservative board and primarily liberal faculty and student body, one could say that the overall system is politically balanced now."


Chapel Hill senior Cho Nikoi arrived at UNC as the years-long controversy about the removal of the Confederate monument Silent Sam was waning. Then came the debate about Hannah-Jones.

"I don't want to say I'm disillusioned, but I don't know," Nikoi said. "The tenure controversy did help to stoke an even deeper frustration with the administrative level and executive level of UNC's governance and Board of Governors. A lot of the governance of UNC is conservative-leaning. So, the sympathies of the Board of Governors lie with those conservative students."

Cooper's special commission examining the governance at UNC System schools is being led by former system presidents, Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings. Ross was a Democratic appointee. Spellings was a Republican appointee. The commission has eight months to return with recommendations.

Cooper reiterated to ABC11 that if the commission suggests returning some appointment powers to the governor -- those changes would not take effect until after he leaves office in January 2025.