After secret proceedings, UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees to meet, vote again on provost

Chris Clemens (Photo: UNC)

[Update: The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees gave public notice of their intention to hold an emergency meeting shortly before 11 a.m. Tuesday, after this story was originally published. The meeting will be held remotely at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.]

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees is expected to hold a special meeting to vote again on the university’s new provost, three members of the board told Policy Watch Tuesday.

As Policy Watch reported last week, the board approved a controversial candidate in a meeting wherein they did not publicly disclose the position for which they were hiring or the candidate they ultimately approved. After fielding questions from reporters last Thursday, the university released a statement announcing the hire shortly after 6 p.m.

The majority of the meeting was held in closed session, which is allowed under state law when dealing with personnel matters. But there was no public discussion and the public vote on the candidate didn’t disclose enough information for the public to determine what was being approved by the board. Instead, the board voted on “action items” that were not made clear to the public.

State statute 143-318.13 explicitly prohibits “acting by reference.”

“The members of a public body shall not deliberate, vote, or otherwise take action upon any matter by reference to a letter, number or other designation, or other secret device or method, with the intention of making it impossible for persons attending a meeting of the public body to understand what is being deliberated, voted, or acted upon,” the statute reads. “However, this subsection does not prohibit a public body from deliberating, voting, or otherwise taking action by reference to an agenda, if copies of the agenda, sufficiently worded to enable the public to understand what is being deliberated, voted, or acted upon, are available for public inspection at the meeting.”

The agenda also did not state which position was being filled, by whom or under what circumstances.

Shortly after the meeting, multiple high profile legal voices questioned the legality of the vote.  Though the board chairman defended the vote, this week board members were told to expect another meeting to more openly and explicitly vote to hire physics professor and associate dean Chris Clemens as the university’s new chief academic and chief operating officer.

Clemens, who has described himself as “among the most outspoken conservative members of the Arts & Sciences faculty at UNC for many years,” was a controversial choice. Multiple sources close to the process told Policy Watch Clemens’s conservative credentials made him the clear choice of the board and that UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz faced pressure to put Clemens forward as his choice for the role or have another candidate rejected.

Guskiewicz has not publicly made any such claim himself.

Members of the university’s board of trustees asked not to be identified when talking about the process with Policy Watch this week so that they could discuss an ongoing personnel matter.

“It shouldn’t have been done the way it was done, with the board not letting the public know what was being voted on and who was being voted on,” one board member said. “We were told that it could be done that way and that we had to protect the confidentiality of the candidate, that the chancellor wanted to make the announcement later. But that’s not how public business should be conducted at the university and we’re going to do it over because they know it’s going to lead to legal challenges if we don’t.”

Another board member said there is division on the board as to whether there was a misstep in the process, but they have been told to expect an
“emergency meeting” as soon as Tuesday.

Under state statute, public bodies must give public notice of an intention to meet 48 hours before any meeting. The statute provides for an “emergency meeting” to handle “generally unexpected circumstances” but does not state that the body may give less notice. The law says notice shall be given to the public “immediately after notice has been given to those members.”

As of early Tuesday, three members of the board said they had not yet been given a time or virtual meeting link for the proposed meeting.

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