Questions continue to mount over UNC Press board appointment

Last week Policy Watch reported on the case of Eric Muller, the renowned UNC-Chapel Hill law professor who was denied a reappointment to the UNC Press Board of Governors, despite recently being unanimously re-elected as its chairman.

As reported, the UNC Board of Governors’ refusal to accept Muller for reappointment appears to be unprecedented. Sources on the board and at the UNC System told Policy Watch Muller’s comments about the university system’s handling of the Silent Sam Confederate monument and race-related issues at UNC-Chapel Hill had led conservative board members to disqualify him for reappointment.

From that story:

The UNC Board of Governors approves all appointments to the UNC Press Board of Governors. But until now, the board has followed the recommendations of the campus level nominating committee and the chancellor.

On March 24, UNC Chapel-Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz sent a letter to UNC System President Peter Hans approving the nominating committee’s recommendation for the reappointment of Eric Muller, Linda Hanley-Bowdoin and Elizabeth Engelhardt.

But on May 19 the UNC System office informed Guskiewicz and UNC Press Director John Sherer the University Governance Committee would only consider Engelhardt and Hanley-Bowdoin.

[David] Powers, chair of the committee, said the board wanted to “change the membership onsome of these boards more frequently,” according to a system email obtained by Policy Watch.

That explanation didn’t make sense to UNC Press board members or others directly involved in the appointment process. Muller was being appointed to a third term on the UNC Press board, but so was Hanley-Bowdoin. Englehardt was being appointed to a second full term. The committee expressed no problem with either of their appointments.

“It’s an explanation that makes no sense on its face,” a UNC System source close to the process told Policy Watch. “It is completely illogical. You cannot appoint one person to a third term and not another and then argue people shouldn’t be serving three terms.”

The University Governance Committee asked Guskiewicz to advance another name for the board, but not Muller. Guskiewicz declined to do so, but did not tell the UNC Press board or the director of the UNC press that he’d gotten this request.

The UNC Board of Governors and its committees met on May 26 and 27, approving Hanley-Bowdoin and Engelhardt but not taking up Muller’s appointment. That led Lisa Levenstein, vice chair of the UNC Press board, to write to Powers and UNC System President Peter Hans on June 2 to ask why Muller was not considered and suggest his reappointment be considered at the University Governance Committee’s next meeting.

Hans and Powers didn’t respond personally. Instead, UNC System General Counsel Andrew Tripp wrote a reply on Hans’s behalf in which he declined to “speculate” on the motives for the board approving two of the names forwarded for consideration but not Muller. The UNC System President’s role in the process is simply to forward names to the board of governors, Tripp wrote in an email obtained by Policy Watch.

 

Policy Watch has requested e-mails related to the decision and is still waiting for some of its requests to be fulfilled. Hans, Guskiewicz and Powers have been silent on the issue.

But this week Policy Watch interviewed Marty Kotis, whose second term on the UNC Board of Governors is coming to a close as he prepares to join the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. Kotis, one of the more outspoken of the board’s members, waved away the idea that the board’s failure to reappoint Muller was political.

“He’s served two terms on the board,” Kotis said. “That’s ten years. He was chair of the board his last term. It seems like that’s long enough to serve on a board. These aren’t lifetime appointments.”

Wouldn’t that logic also apply to Hanley-Bowdoin, who was reappointed to a third term?

Eric Muller

“We’ve been trying to get more diversity on some of these boards,” Kotis said. “Not reappointing a woman on the board wouldn’t help with that. With Muller, it’s not reappointing another white man.”

But the University Governance Committee did not ask Guskiewicz to advance the name of a woman or non-white person. It asked for a candidate who was not Muller. If diversity is now a priority on boards appointed by the North Carolina General Assembly or its appointees on the UNC Board of Governors, progress appears to be incremental at best over the last few years. The UNC Board of Governors and UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees remain overwhelmingly white and male. Appointments to lower boards continue to lean white, male and conservative, rarely approximating the racial or gender makeup of the universities or communities they are meant to serve.

In 2019 the board of governors approved four members of the UNC Press Board of Governors. Three of those four were white men. Two of those white men were new appointments. One was a reappointment.

Muller’s case comes on the heels of the controversy over the UNC Board of Trustees denying acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones a vote on tenure. Students, faculty, alumni and academic groups across the country are pointing to a pattern of interference with academic freedom.

Faculty at the UNC Law School released a statement last week, saying recent decisions by the board of governors and board of trustees “undermined the morale of faculty and undermine the intellectual credibility and moral integrity of the University.”

This week free speech advocacy group PEN America also weighed in on Muller’s case.

“This is another unusual incident where the motivations and judgements of UNC’s governing bodies are being rightfully called into question”, said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America in a written statement. “The same principles of academic freedom that should protect Muller from retaliation for his teaching and scholarship must extend to his public commentary on UNC’s decisions, which are closely related to his field of academic expertise.”

“The onus now falls on the Board of Governors to explain the rationale for this decision, to offer some legitimate reason for their decision based on Professor Muller’s execution of his academic duties,” Friedman said. “Otherwise observers will be left wondering whether the UNC system has forfeited its commitment to reasoned disagreement, open exchange, and academic freedom in favor of a system of political interference and ideological uniformity.”

Thorsten Wagner, executive director of Fellowships and Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics, also urged the board of governors to reconsider Muller’s reappointment.

“Eric L. Muller has consistently shown extraordinary ethical leadership as a professional — in his role as legal expert, academic teacher, educator, and public intellectual,” Wagner wrote For almost a decade he has been pioneering FASPE’s Law program, encouraging law students and practicing lawyers to apply the lessons from past failures of the legal profession as they critically examine constructs, current developments, and issues that raise ethical concerns.”

“He has put this self-critical perspective into practice in his leading scholarship on the role of lawyers in American-Japanese internment camps, reaching a wide audience, and in his insights on the conflicts over the ways the University of North Carolina has been dealing with the symbols of a fraught and toxic history of slavery and the Civil War,” Wagner wrote. “Irrespective of particular positions, it is Professor Muller’s ethical obligation to speak his mind in matters of professional responsibility, which he has consistently done in a respectful manner.”

“We urge the University of North Carolina to reconsider its decision not to re-appoint him to the Board of Governors of UNC Press, given his long and proven track record of ethical leadership at a time when this country, and its educational institutions, so sorely need it,” Wagner wrote.

Progressive group interrupts House committee meeting, demands “people’s budget” to address healthcare, housing and worker rights

A group of activists interrupted a House committee meeting on Tuesday, demanding a “people’s budget” with expanded Medicaid, affordable housing and worker protections. 

Members of the group, NC People’s Budget, stood up during the Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee meeting, which did not allow public comment, and spoke over committee members. 

“We are here for the people — the People’s Budget,” said a member of the group. “You failed to let us make a public comment on this budget and you passed this budget without the people.” 

One other group member spoke up before the entire group was escorted out of the meeting. General Assembly Police arrested one member of the group following her comments. 

Last week, the N.C. Senate gave preliminary approval to a $25.7 billion budget. Because the state has not passed a comprehensive budget in the last two years, there is a surplus of over $5 billion. The proposed budget would leave $3.6 billion unspent — money Democrats and activists say could be going to larger teacher raises, Medicaid expansion and more. 

Rebecca Cerese, Health Engagement Coordinator at the N.C. Justice Center

“We don’t have scarcity of resources, we actually have an abundance of resources,” Rebecca Cerese, a member of NC People’s Budget said. “We want real investments in North Carolina.” 

Cerese is also the health engagement coordinator at the North Carolina Justice Center.  The Justice Center is also a signatory of the People’s Budget platform. (NC Policy Watch is a project of the Justice Center.)

Among the People’s Budget’s priorities are increased wages, Medicaid expansion, rent and mortgage relief and more. The group is a broad coalition of progressive organizations, including Democracy NC, the NC Poor People’s Campaign and others. 

Following the comments from activists, committee members went on to debate appropriations for Health and Human Services in the proposed Senate budget, which includes $5.76 billion for DHHS. 

Rep. Gale Adcock

Rep. Gale Adcock, a Wake County Democrat, said that the budget missed the opportunity to provide health insurance to the over 500,000 uninsured people in the state, “Which, of course, would stabilize our rural hospitals and strengthen our behavioral health system, which is in crisis right now.” 

Adcock also lamented the fact that the budget did not include raises for direct care workers, such as those who work in nursing homes and hospice. 

The budget process is far from over, as the House still needs to approve their own version of the budget before they can collaborate with the Senate on a final version to send to Governor Roy Cooper. The legislature expects to have a budget on Cooper’s desk by the end of July. 

UNC journalism student Kyle Ingram is a summer intern at NC Policy Watch.

The NC Senate budget isn’t all about money. It’s got plenty of new policies, too.

Image: AdobeStock

Reading the state budget is like hunting through tall grass looking for things that don’t quite belong – items that are or could have been their own separate bills and don’t directly deal with money, yet ended up as few paragraphs in a 427-page document.

The budget proposal the Senate passed last week, and which House members started formally reviewing Tuesday, is chock full of interesting nuggets that got mixed in with the money.

The provisions that would strip power from governors and attorneys general have been the most discussed so far. Here are a few more.

The Senate budget would eliminate the controversial innovative school district. Created in 2016, the district as originally planned, would have up to five schools in it by now. It has only one, Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County.

The idea was to take low-performing public schools and give them to outside organizations to run. A wealthy charter school backer from Oregon, John Bryan, bragged about his work getting the state to create the special district.

Most local districts fought handing over their schools, and the innovative district never expanded.

Achievement for All Children was selected to run Southside-Ashpole Elementary. That didn’t go well, and the State Board of Education and Achievement for All Children ended their relationship, Policy Watch reported this year.

The budget says state Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt should come up with some new ideas and tell legislators about them on February. The Southside-Ashpole would go back to Robeson in the 2023-2024 school year. This provision is on page 45 of the budget.

Should athletes who play for UNC system schools be considered in-state students for tuition purposes? The state has been kicking this around for a while. The tuition break was around for a few years in the mid-2000s before it was dropped.  In-state tuition for UNC schools’ athletes would save athletic booster clubs boatloads of money.

A 2019 bill that would have allowed it got stuck in a Senate committee.

This year’s Senate budget has restoring in-state tuition for athletes on page 72.

Another provision would give child care facilities a break with the state star-rating system if their lead teachers don’t have the education credentials that help facilities earn the highest ranking of five stars. A bill that would do this passed the Senate in April and is moving through the House.  The budget provision starts on page 109. Child care facilities would be able to keep their five-star ratings while having fewer teachers with post-high school education for two years.

Lowering the education requirement for lead teachers is controversial, North Carolina Health News reported.

A bill that would require health services facilities – hospitals, rehab centers, or other places people seek care —  tell patients if they’ll be treated by out-of-network providers landed in the Senate budget on page 155. This provision passed the Senate unanimously in May as a separate bill that is sitting in the House Rules Committee.

Members of the National Guard reserve would be given preference when applying for state government jobs, under a budget provision that starts on page 284.

State policy already gives hiring preference to war veterans.

NC Senate budget gets preliminary approval, with Democrats’ ideas sidelined

Sen. Phil Berger

The Senate gave preliminary approval to a $25.7 billion budget proposal Thursday, with its Republican leader rejecting criticism that it shortchanges children, teachers, and government retirees.

Four Senate Democrats joined all the chamber’s Republicans in approving the proposal in a 32-18 vote. The Senate must take another vote before sending the budget to the House. The House will write its own version and the two chambers will get together on a compromise before sending the spending plan to Gov. Roy Cooper.

Republicans remained united in shrugging off without votes eight changes Democrats proposed. Among the Democrats’ proposed amendments were spending more to meet North Carolina’s constitutional obligation provide a “sound, basic education” to all students, and giving teachers pay raises of 10% over two years rather than the 3% over two years as Senate Republicans proposed.

“A three percent raise over two years is a slap in the face,” said Sen. Michael Garrett, a Greensboro Democrat. “It is beneath the dignity of this body.”

He and other Democrats said the state could afford to spend more in some areas. The Senate proposal leaves more than $3.6 billion unspent.

“We have billions in unallocated state revenue, so don’t tell me, don’t tell our teachers, don’t tell our students we can’t afford to invest in our kids’ future,” Garrett said.

Throughout the week, Republican budget writers have pointed out that they have adhered to  limits on budget increases that equal population growth plus inflation.

But Thursday, Senate leader Phil Berger said that when all sources are considered, “the amount of money being spent in this budget is unprecedented.” Revenues include North Carolina tax and fee collections and more than $4.8 billion in federal rescue money.

Democrats’ spending proposals would create long-term obligations that risk returning the state to budget deficits, Berger said. “We’ve seen this philosophy before, and it doesn’t work.”

The Great Recession drove North Carolina’s and other states’ budgets into deficit.

North Carolina started this year with more than $5 billion in unspent money, largely because the Republican-led legislature and Democratic Gov.

Sen. Dan Blue

Roy Cooper failed to agree on a comprehensive budget for two years.

The latest estimate from economists working for the state is that North Carolina is going to collect $6.5 billion more in tax revenue than anticipated over the next two years.

Sen. Dan Blue, the Democratic leader, said he wants fiscal responsibility “but we need to have compassion for our communities all over this state and we need to meet the challenges that the confront this state.”

Legislators have described the Senate budget as an early step in a multi-step process toward getting to a spending plan.

“I just hate for us to miss a golden opportunity to catapult our state ahead of not only the other states with which we compete but other places in the world,” Blue said.

Sen. Wiley Nickel, a Cary Democrat, wanted to eliminate the corporate income tax cut that’s in the budget and use the money the state would continue to collect to allow all  3- and 4-year-olds to attend NC Pre-K. The budget starts a phase-out of the 2.5% corporate income tax.

Sen. Joyce Waddell, a Charlotte Democrat, argued for a 2% cost of living adjustment for government retirees. “Think about retirees. Many of you here are retired, or close to it. Just look around,” she said to senators’ laughter.

Public sector retirees have lost 20% of the value of their pensions since 2008, Waddell said. “I hope with the surplus you have in this budget you will do something about it,” she said. “If you don’t, it’s a shame, shame, shame.”

Berger said the budget meets state obligations to retirees. People in his district who lost their pensions when textile companies went bankrupt would have to pay those government retiree cost-of-living adjustments, Berger said. “That’s utterly unfair,” he said.

The Senate budget is larded with special provisions that seek to limit the governor’s powers in an emergency and the attorney general’s abilities to join or settle some lawsuits.

Republicans opposed some of the limits on businesses and public gatherings that Cooper imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The mask mandate was an issue in last year’s campaign. Cooper’s Republican challenger was against it.

Masks remain a polarizing issue, with the state House passing a bill Wednesday that would have local school districts decide whether children at school should continue to wear masks. Cooper’s current executive order requires all students at public and private schools to wear masks indoors, NC Policy Watch reported.  The 66-44 House vote was largely along party lines, with three Democrats voting with the Republican majority.

The budget imposes time limits on executive orders during states of emergency and requires the governor to get Council of State concurrence. The Council of State is comprised of statewide elected office holders and is majority Republican.

The attorney general would be prohibited from agreeing to consent agreements or lawsuit settlements to which legislative leaders are a party unless the lawmakers agree. The Senate passed a bill addressing this issue in April with a 28-21 vote, short of a veto-proof margin. Republicans are angry about a legal settlement last fall that extended the absentee mail-in ballot deadline from three days to nine days after Election Day.

The attorney general would need approval from a Council of State majority to join out-or-state or federal lawsuits where the state or state agency is not seeking damages.

Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, has joined lawsuits in the past challenging former President Donald Trump and his administration.

Earlier this year, Stein’s spokeswoman said in an email that the Republican bills giving legislative leaders veto power over consent judgments and legal settlements are unconstitutional.

In an interview this week, Gerry Cohen, a former legislative counsel, said he doesn’t think that getting approval from legislative leaders is something legislators can require.

“The Speaker and the Pro Tem can present their arguments to the judge,” he said. “I think that would be up to the court to decide what to do about that.”

Even before Cooper started his first term, legislative Republicans started trying to strip him of his appointment powers and elections oversight. Court battles helped shape Cooper’s first few years in office.

The budget provisions requiring Cooper to seek Council of State approval for executive orders in emergencies is “a naked partisan grab because Cooper is a Democrat,” said Vanessa Zboreak, an assistant professor at the Elon University School of Law.

“The legislature can’t write a law that gives itself executive power or write a law that overly intrudes on the function of the executive branch,” Zboreak said in an interview this week.

The provision requiring legislative leaders to okay consent judgments “is going to run in to serious problems,” she said.

“It’s over-reach,” Zboreak said. “It’s giving the legislature too much power to stop the action of the executive branch.”

Section weakening whistleblower protections struck from Farm Act

Rep. Nasif Majeed, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County (Photo: NCGA)

The House Agriculture Committee voted to remove a controversial section of the Farm Act involving whistleblower complaints today, but that portion could still be reinstated later.

Rep. Nasif Majeed, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, successfully amended the bill to strike that provision from Senate Bill 605.

It would have directed the Department of Labor, when dismissing worker retaliation complaints, to issue right-to-sue letters with the caveat its investigation showed the allegations were unfounded. The letters would go to both the employees and the employer.

This is important because workers can use these right-to-sue letters to independently file lawsuits against their employers. With that new required wording from the Labor Department, it could have dissuaded workers from suing and have given the employer the upper hand.

The Labor Department is notorious for finding working complaints are baseless. In the past 10 years, the Labor Department records show it investigated 2,154 complaints and found only 217 had merit.

The provision would have applied to not only farm workers but all employees.

“I’m disappointed,” said Sen. Brent Jackson after the committee vote. As the bill sponsor, Jackson was present for the discussion. A farm owner, Jackson himself has been the subject of whistleblower complaints.

Facing opposition from worker rights advocates and many Democrats, Jackson had already softened the language from its original version. That language did not require the Labor Department to send a right-to-sue letter at all.

After Jackson tweaked the wording, the full Senate had passed the bill 28-21. The bill as amended now goes to the House Rules committee. It will eventually circle back to the Senate for concurrence.

This legislation also supports the proliferation of biogas systems, whose methane would be captured from industrialized hog farms and then injected into natural gas pipelines. Biogas has also faced staunch opposition from environmental groups and neighbors of these farms over concerns about air and water pollution, as well as environmental justice issues.