By David Rice
Higher Ed Works
CHAPEL HILL (Feb. 20, 2020) – Following scandals involving individual UNC Board of Governors members who intervened in campus decisions and two East Carolina University trustees who tampered with a student election, the Board’s Governance Committee launched a discussion of proper governance.
In the first discussion of what Committee Chair David Powers said will likely be a three-month process, a consensus emerged that members of campus Boards of Trustees and the Board of Governors need better training in their roles.
UNC System General Counsel Tom Shanahan told committee members they have no authority over a university as an individual board member.
“It’s the board acting together that the authority comes from – not the individual member,” Shanahan said. In response to a query from board member Jim Holmes, Shanahan added, “An individual board member is not acting on behalf of the board.”
Similarly, he said, the duty of both campus trustees and Board of Governors members is to the institution, not their personal agendas.
“They’re expected to act in the interests of the institution, not themselves,” Shanahan said.
When problems are reported to board members by students, staff, faculty or the public, a board member’s proper response is to report it to leadership – namely the system president or university chancellor, Shanahan said.
The explanation prompted board member Tom Fetzer to say members need to be briefed better on their roles. When he joined the board, Fetzer said, “I don’t recall getting a real thorough run-down on all this stuff.”
(The Board of Governors did hear similar instructions in 2017 from Dr. Belle Wheelan, President of Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which accredits all 16 public universities in the University of North Carolina System.)
Holmes agreed that the board should add clarity to its rules governing the actions of individual board members.
Currently, the only sanctions the board can impose are removal of members appointed by the Board of Governors itself, or a recommendation to remove members who are appointed by other bodies such as the NC General Assembly, Shanahan said. Such sanctions require a two-thirds vote, or support from at least 16 of the 24 Board of Governors members.
Powers said the board might want to consider creating sanctions short of outright removal and clarify the rules governing individual trustee and Board of Governors member actions.
In a recent case involving two ECU trustees who attempted to convince a candidate to run for student body president and offered to finance her campaign, he said, “We knew somebody had crossed a line. We didn’t know where that line was.”
When asked about training for trustees, Powers said the UNC System does have training sessions for trustees, but the sessions spend little time on ethics.
“Nor do I think we spend enough time with Board of Governors members on this,” he said. “A much more robust on-boarding of our own members, I think, is in order.”
In response to a question from UNC Wilmington Chancellor Jose Sartarelli, Powers said campus trustees need to understand it is the chancellor’s job to run the university.
“The Board of Trustees is there to advise him,” he said.
Similarly, with the Board of Governors, “Our role is not to run universities. Our role is to set policy … and not run individual universities,” Powers said.
Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey sat in on the discussion but did not dominate it. Ramsey agreed, though, that the UNC System must improve training for board members.
“We have to do a better job,” he said. “We have to define this clearly going forward.”
David Rice is the Executive Director of Higher Ed Works.