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UNC Board of Governors chairman defends call for board unity, rejection of partisanship

UNC Board of Governors
Chairman Louis Bissette Jr.

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Louis Bissette Jr. once again found himself playing defense against his own board Friday, when members took him to task for penning  an op-ed [1] in which he encouraged the board to avoid political partisanship and unite for the good of the UNC system and the state.

Board member Bob Rucho took the unusual step of publicly asking Bissette to explain himself during the board’s meeting in an exchange Bissette joked might, in another time, have been a duel between the two.

“There are a number of board members who feel that we need to understand why our chairman, the Board of Governors’ chairman, made a public comment critical of the board in some estimations rather than consulting with board members directly about your concerns,” Rucho said.

Rucho, a Republican from Matthews, is part of an aggressive conservative wing of the board that has clashed with Bissette and UNC President Margaret Spellings over the last year and feel Bissette’s remarks were aimed at them.

Before being appointed to the board last year Rucho spent 17 years in the legislature, where he held some key leaderrship roles. Rucho was also one of the most conservative and combative of GOP legislators, his controversial behavior in the legislature sometimes even leading to conflicts with his own party, Memorably, he once tweeted that the Affordable Care Act and the Supreme Court’s decision upholding it did “more damage to the USA then the swords of the Nazis, Soviets & terrorists combined.” Rucho refused to apologize for the comments [2], even when asked to do so by the chairman of the state GOP, calling his critics “the socialist elite.”

UNC Board of Governors member Bob Rucho

Bissette and Spellings have found themselves at odds with the board’s more politically aggressive members of the board, including a number of embarassing public controversies wherein they were criticized and their judgement questioned in public letters and heated e-mail exchanges [3].

Bissette  defended himself Friday, saying he did not intend the column as “a slam” against the Board of Governors. He blamed that perception, shared by members of the board and the conservative James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal [4], on the headline chosen when his column was published in the Charlotte Observer.

Bissette intended the column to be titled “UNC Board of Governors – Year in Review,” as it was when it appeared as part of the Higher Education Works EdTalk series. But when published in the Charlotte Observer, it carried the headline “UNC Board of Governors chair: We need to stay out of politics.”

Bisette blamed the headline for a misperception of the column, but said he stood behind its content and does not think he needed permission or pre-approval from the board to make a public statement about the board’s work.

“I would never advocate a policy which would require some type of pre-approval by the board, which would restrict your rights,” Bissette said, pointing to outspoken members like Harry Smith, Marty Kotis and Rucho himself as examples of board members who speak their mind as they see fit.

While Bissette said he did not intend to criticize the current board, which has been mired by in-fighting and ideological squabbles for months, several members said they thought his column spoke for itself.

Bissette wrote:

It took political courage from far-sighted leaders to create the Board of Governors nearly 50 years ago in an effort to free our state’s public institutions from undue political influence. The independent governing board that emerged was designed to provide oversight, accountability, and guidance to our extraordinary System of 17 diverse and exemplary institutions.

It has always been a challenge to maintain the balance of freedom and accountability that has enabled the System to grow into one of the best public higher education systems in the nation. But the Board of Governors long understood it was not designed or expected to manage the day-to-day operations of the University or to choose sides in political controversies.

Today, however, that challenge seems greater than ever before. As a Board, we must return to that balance of freedom and accountability, refrain from any desire to intervene too directly and focus on our responsibility to improve an already excellent System by setting clear policies and expectations, and empowering our President, chancellors, faculty, and staff to meet them.

Emphasizing his point, the column concluded with two further paragraphs members found quite pointed:

But as we celebrate our progress, we must remember that the job is not about us — our views, our ideologies, or our individual interests. It is about the people of this great state, people who deserve the benefits and opportunities of a world-class University System.

And:

“As a governing body, our job is to enable and promote this progress. We must operate as a united Board, focused on providing oversight, ensuring accountability and setting System policy while allowing our President, chancellors, faculty and staff to do their job. That’s the higher expectation our citizens have for us, and I’m confident our Board members can rise to meet it.”

Some board members said they took exception to the suggestion that their behavior had been partisan, self-serving or not meeting the expectations fo citizens.

Just this week Bissette and Spellings again found themselves in a quarrel over just that issue. They turned to the State Ethics Commission [5] after board member Tom Fetzer recused himself from a discussion of the proposed UNC Health Care/Carolinas HealthCare partnership because of a conflict of interest but e-mailed board memebrs to say he believed the deal may violate the law and that Spellings was delinquent in her duty for not discussing it with the board sooner.

Fetzer, a lobbyist who represents insurance and health care interests opposing the deal, was absent from Friday’s meeting altogther. A former state GOP chairman and one-time mayor of Raleigh, he last year rallied fifteen members of the board [3] to sign a letter in which he criticized Spellings and Bissette’s leadership when they appealed to Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, to help resolve the festering controversy over a Confederate monument on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

In a press conference after Friday’s meeting, Bissette downplayed the recent confrontations while acknowledging tensions on the board that can make it difficult to concentrate on body’s most important work.

“There’s…a lot going on,” Bissette said.