Change to UNC System chancellor search process would allow president to bypass trustees, insert finalists

A proposed change to chancellor searches at UNC System schools would allow the UNC System President to insert final candidates into search processes that traditionally happened at the local Board of Trustees level.

Some UNC Board of Governors members and trustees have reservations about the change, put forward by incoming UNC System President Peter Hans at Wednesday’s meeting of the UNC Board of Governors’ Committee on Personnel and Tenure. But it passed a committee vote unanimously and will be taken up by the full board Thursday.

At issue: a fundamental change in the way UNC schools’ top leaders are chosen. Under the current system an individual school’s board of trustees conducts an independent search and forwards at least two finalists to the UNC System President. The president chooses a final candidate to submit to a final vote by the UNC Board of Governors.

Hans’ proposed change would allow the UNC System president to add up to two candidates to search process. Those candidates would go through the same interviews as other candidates, but would automatically move forward as part of a slate of finalists for the position. In effect, the president would have the power to both insert candidates into the search process without approval from the board of trustees, those candidates would become finalists for the positions whether or not the board of trustees approves and the president would then choose a final candidate from those finalists.

UNC System President-elect Peter Hans.

At Wednesday’s committee meeting Hans said the change is necessary to be sure the board of governors gets the strongest final candidates — something he said did not always happen during his 12 years serving on the board and two years advising former UNC  System President Margaret Spellings. The hope, Hans said, is that a  create a “farm team” of people from within and without the university system will be created for better succession planning when chancellors need to be replaced.

But the move would also mean that the President could choose candidates who would not be acceptable to a university board of trustees. Those candidates could then become finalists for the position, even over the objection of the trustees.

That is precisely the scenario feared by members of the East Carolina University Board of Trustees, which is currently holding a chancellor search. In February two trustees told Policy Watch that N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) was aggressively seeking the chancellor’s position. The board, which has been divided on a number of contentious issues, has seen tensions over whether Moore’s candidacy would be a flagrant conflict of interests.

Several board members said they do not believe it would be proper for one of the state’s most powerful elected officials, responsible for appointing members of both the Board of Trustees and the UNC Board of Governors, to take a job on which those boards would ultimately vote.

Reached Wednesday, one of the board members said the change to the chancellor search could clear the way for Moore and candidates like him in the future.

“This is exactly how you give the jobs to people like that,” said the trustee, who Policy Watch agreed not to name so that he could discuss the confidential search process and board discussions about it. “If a board of trustees has to vote on whether some of the most politically connected people in the state become chancellors, people who appoint the boards that run the university system, then there’s going to be disagreement and there’s going to be controversy. But if you give the new president the power to just insert finalists into any search process, then they can bypass the trustees at every school and just appoint who they wanted in the first place. We don’t even need to be part of the process.”

There continues to be concern on his board of trustees over Moore becoming a de facto finalist,  the trustee said — or any similarly politically connected candidates. For this change in the chancellor selection process to be the very first proposal by Hans before he even officially takes office next month also seems conspicuous, he said.

“This is not the most important issue at the UNC System right now,” the trustee said. “You’ve got COVID-19 and returning to campus and the economy and all of these things. But this is the very first thing that he proposes at a committee meeting after he is elected. I think you have to wonder why that is and whether it has to do with Tim Moore.”

In February Joseph Kyzer, Moore’s communications director, responded to Policy Watch’s questions about whether Moore is seeking the chancellorship.

“Speaker Moore is seeking re-election to the state House in 2020, plans to run for another term as Speaker if elected, and is focused on serving higher education students and campuses through his position in the General Assembly,” Kyzer said Wednesday.

Kyzer did not respond to a follow-up question asking whether Moore’s run for re-election would preclude him from also seeking the chancellorship at ECU.

On Wednesday Policy Watch again inquired about whether Moore seek the position. His office did not respond as of late Wednesday.

Members of boards of trustees at N.C. A&T, UNC-Greensboro and Fayetteville State University all told Policy Watch that they have reservations about the planned change as well. None were willing to go on record, however, saying that the political environment is fraught and it could negatively impact their boards and schools to criticize moves by the board of governors.

Ideally the chancellor selection process will be a collaboration and not become adversarial, Hans said Wednesday.

“You have my pledge that I will work very closely with the search committees — cooperatively, collaboratively,” Hans told the Personnel and Tenure Committee.

But if the president and trustees didn’t agree, the president’s finalists would prevail.

That could be a problem, said UNC Board of Governors member Lou Bissette.

“It seems like to me that could be come a very sensitive area of discussion between you and the particular institution and its board of trustees,” Bissette said.

Bissette said he has always favored decentralization and letting local boards of trustees conduct their own search processes without intervention.

Board of Governors member Doyle Parrish agreed.

“I share Lou’s concern about the insertion of candidates that maybe are not welcomed on the campus level, the trustee level,” Parrish said. “I trust that Peter will be — and whoever our president is — will be conscientious of that and understand the implications.”

Neither Bissette nor Parrish voiced any reservations before the committee approved the change unanimously and without discussion.

Board of Governors member Marty Kotis praised the change, saying it was overdue.

“In the private sector I can’t imagine a scenario where a president doesn’t have the ability to pick their own team members — especially their direct reports,” Kotis said. “I think this is a very important step that should have happened before now and I love that our new president is up to that challenge and also looking at developing a pipeline of potential candidates, I assume both internal and external.”

During the tenure of former UNC President Margaret Spellings the board of governors did not always feel that way. Even under the search process led by the board of trustees, Spellings had multiple conflicts with the board over her final choices for chancellor positions. An entire search process was scrapped at Western Carolina University when a board member took it upon himself to attempt to disqualify a final candidate proposed by Spellings — a move that divided the sometimes combative board.

Hans said that he hopes that the strength of the candidates he puts forward will mean boards of trustees will embrace those candidates, creating consensus.

“I will prove it in more than concept but in reality for you,” Hans said.

UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees Chairman Richard Stevens said his board, which just chose a new chancellor, has never had any problem finding quality candidates on their own.

But ultimately, Stevens said, the board of governors makes policy on chancellors searches — the trustees just follow it.

“Ultimately it’s the responsibility of the president and the board of governors to select chancellors,” Stevens said. “That’s where the final decision is going to be made anyway.”

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