One member of the ECU Board of Trustees abruptly resigned during a hearing before the UNC Board of Governors Friday. Another was censured and reprimanded.
ECU Trustees Phil Lewis and Robert Moore were brought before the Board of Governors after they were recorded trying to convince ECU student Shelby Hudson to run for SGA president. The two told Hudson they could arrange for a professional campaign manager and finance her campaign as long as she kept the source of the money secret. Hudson recorded the lunch conversation without Moore or Lewis’ knowledge.
On the recording the two trustees disparaged the current ECU student government president, Colin Johnson, who is a voting member of the board of trustees. Lewis and Moore have opposed a number of Johnson’s votes, going back to a contentious meeting wherein he was the swing vote in the election of a new of board chair. Vern Davenport, the current board chair, won the position 7-6 on the sharply divided board. On the tape, they told Hudson they had voted for a student fee increase to “punish” Johnson and suggested she could be an SGA president more in line with their vision for the board and the school. They also made disparaging remarks about ECU leaders and the UNC Board of Governors.
Hudson appeared before the Board of Governors Friday and read a prepared statement in which she described how Lewis reached out to her through Facebook. He asked her about her previous, unsuccessful run for SGA president and told her they needed “a good Republican” like her on the board, she said. Hudson was cut off after two minutes and was unable to read her full statement, though she made it available to board members.
Johnson also spoke to the board, telling them “students feel attacked” and that they are looking to the Board of Governors to restore faith in the university governance system.
The recording incensed many members of the Board of Governors. Despite a University Governance Committee recommendation that the board take no action against Moore and Lewis, Board of Governors member Marty Kotis motioned to remove Lewis from his position as a trustee.
Because Lewis was appointed by the Board of Governors, it has the power to remove him. Moore was appointed by the N.C. House and would have to be removed by a vote there.
Kotis came to Friday’s meeting armed with highlighted copies of the transcript of Lewis and Moore’s lunch with Hudson, the contents of which he said made him sick to his stomach. Kotis gave an exhaustive account of the conversation, pointing to specific sections of the UNC Code he believed Lewis to have violated during specific parts of the conversation.
UNC Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer attempted a substitute motion after Kotis made his case, asking that Moore and Lewis instead be censured and the entire board of trustees be given a written reprimand for its dysfunctional behavior. Fellow board member Thom Goolsby seconded the motion, but it failed.
Instead a momentum built among board members for Lewis’ removal, with several of them saying they believed the integrity not just of the ECU board of trustees was at stake in the matter but the integrity of the Board of Governors as well.
“My son is attending some of these meetings,” Kotis said. “He’s 17. These kids are only 20. I’m doing what I think is right by him and voting my conscience. I’d encourage every board member here to vote their conscience as well.”
“I find that in my review of the material and as I’ve listened to the discussion, this goes beyond board dysfunction and relationship dysfunction,” said Board of Governors member Reginald Holley. “It goes to the foundation of integrity.”
Adam Schmidt, President of the UNC Association of Student Governments and an ex-officio member of the UNC Board of Governors, told his fellow board members that the eyes of all students were on the board as it made this decision.
“Your actions today don’t just reflect on these trustees but the ethics and honor of this board,” Schmidt said. “The actions you take or don’t take will show us whether our belief that we can look up to you is true.”
Before the board could vote, Board of Governors member Jim Holmes asked for a five minute recess. When he returned, he announced that Lewis would like to address the board.
Lewis then gave a speech in which he defended his actions, insisted he had been set up and claimed that what he did was not unusual at ECU. He announced he would resign but took parting shots at his fellow board members and Kotis.
“If you ever get taped and get set up, I hope it works out for you,” Lewis said to Kotis.
Holmes then made a motion to accept Lewis’ resignation and to censure and reprimand Moore, taking away his voting right as a board member until the end of September.
It is not clear why that time frame was chosen. Further action could be taken against Moore by the N.C. House, but it was not suggested by the board. Moore is a heavy contributor to Republican political campaigns, having given more than $30,000 to the campaigns of Republican lawmakers including House Leader Tim Moore and House Majority Leader John Bell.
Both Moore and Lewis left after the meeting without speaking to reporters.
Vern Davenport, the embattled chair of the ECU Board of Trustees, said he believes the Board of Governors’ solution will allow his board to get back to work.
“We have some important things to do — like hiring a chancellor,” Davenport said.
Davenport praised the courage of both Hudson and Johnson, saying their willingness to stand up for what is right in the face of criticism is a great representation of ECU.
“What an amazing person,” Davenport said of Hudson. “What an uncomfortable situation she found herself in…but we can learn a lot from these young people.”
Hudson withdrew from ECU shortly after her meeting with Lewis and Moore. On Friday she told Policy Watch she is now at Pitt Community College and plans to return to ECU in the Fall semester.
“I knew I had to come today and speak my truth about what happened,” Hudson said. “I knew if I did that I wouldn’t have anything to be afraid of.”
After the meeting Kotis said he hopes Lewis’ resignation and Moore’s censure would restore some confidence not just in the ECU Board of Trustees but also the UNC Board of Governors. Kotis said he was disappointed Lewis’ expressed little or no remorse in his resignation speech. In doing so, Kotis said, Lewis reinforced the opinion he’d formed of him through listening to the taped conversation at the heart of the controversy.
“Guy’s a sleazebag from what I can tell,” Kotis said.
Chairman Randy Ramsey expressed disappointment with the entire ECU board but particularly with the two trustees who came before the board Friday.
“If I could remove the entire board today, I probably would,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey announced that at the next Board of Governors meeting the University Governance Committee will begin looking into board policies on self-governance, including the discipling of Board of Governors members and trustees.
David Powers, chair of the committee, issued a statement giving more detail.
“I will also form a working group, in consultation with Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey, composed of student body presidents, chancellors and members of Board of Trustees and Board of Governors to review student election procedures and ensure adequate anti-tampering procedures are in place,” Powers said in the statement.
Ramsey said all Board of Governors members and every trustee must remember why they are in their positions and who they represent.
“We are all stewards of NC’s crown jewel, one of the best higher education systems in the world,” Ramsey said.