It was a long time coming; 140 years, in fact.When Republicans seized control of both chambers of North Carolina’s General Assembly, in 2010, for the first time in more than a century, they quickly set about remaking a politically moderate state that Barack Obama had carried in the presidential election just two years earlier.Buoyed by a Tea Party backlash against the nation’s leftward drift, Republicans redrew voting districts and pushed socially conservative proposals that hardened political battle lines. A ban on same-sex marriages passed in 2012. Several years later came a “bathroom bill,” restricting transgender people’s access to restrooms. (Both measures would later be undone in courts).Less noticed in those early days of Republican rule was a methodical effort that reshaped the culture and policies of what is arguably the state’s most beloved and influential institution: the University of North Carolina system.Exerting political dominance over higher education in North Carolina, where public universities anchor the Research Triangle and college basketball dominates the culture, gave Republicans an opportunity to put their stamp on a particularly high-profile state agency. It was the view of many in the new Republican majority that the system, governed for decades by a board of Democratic-friendly appointees, had allowed unchecked liberalism to crowd out conservative viewpoints in the classroom and wasted taxpayer money on professors’ left-wing indulgences.The key to transforming these institutions lay in the Board of Governors, which at the time was a group of 32 people who oversaw 16 universities. Often invisible in daily campus affairs, college governing boards have a profound influence on the policies and priorities of public universities. They set tuition, hire and fire presidents, and approve strategic plans. Beyond that, though, they have tremendous latitude in setting their own agendas.In recent years, a number of politically appointed public-university boards have used their broad powers to wade into contentious territory that often splits along partisan lines — setting policies around free speech, scrutinizing the perceived ideological underpinnings of curricula, targeting protections of tenure, and restraining collective-bargaining rights. Such issues, some of which have come to preoccupy the North Carolina Board of Governors, make public universities ideal staging grounds for waging broader political warfare.It would take time for North Carolina’s board to be positioned for such fights. Bit by bit, though, the board, whose members are elected by the General Assembly, came to look like the state’s new conservative majority. By 2015, the board was essentially purged of Democrats, who had been replaced with Republican megadonors, current and former lobbyists, an ex-lawmaker, and a couple of super-PAC organizers.Once the chess pieces were in place on the board, the endgame became clear: Take out the king. At the time that was Thomas W. Ross, who had been named president of the system in 2010, a few months before Republicans took control of the legislature.Ross, a former president of Davidson College, is a onetime judge with long ties to the state’s Democratic party.Although Ross had not been politically active for years, his party affiliation made him an obvious target, Ross said in a recent interview with The Chronicle. He recalled, early in his tenure at North Carolina, being told by a board member, “You’re going to be great here. And you’ll be here a long time if you change your party registration.” Ross would not divulge the name of the person who made that comment, which he called a warning bell. His concerns subsided, though, as the years went on. So much so that, on a crisp January day in 2015, Ross turned to his chief of staff and mused that maybe he had survived the political revolution after all.“I think we’re over the hump,” Ross recalls saying.His lieutenant concurred.Later that day, Ross said, the board’s chairman told him he should step aside.“I don’t know who ordered it,” Ross said of his forced resignation. “There are people who think it came from the legislature. I don’t know where it came from. But I don’t think many people doubt it was a political decision; I certainly don’t.”
Ani Garrigo, The Daily Tar HeelThomas Ross, a Democrat who was president of the U. of North Carolina system, said he was told in 2015 to step aside. “I don’t think many people doubt it was a political decision. I certainly don’t.”
After the board hired a high-profile Republican to succeed Ross as president, the General Assembly elected additional hardline members, whose politics mirrored those of the state’s conservative and libertarian establishment. Moderate board members and administrators, themselves loyal Republicans, say they were systemically purged or finally quit of their own accord. The result was the rise of a board with a penchant for power struggles, whose politically connected members imposed their wills on campuses and inflamed conflict in the name of fiscal responsibility or civic principle.It was the sort of political transformation that, in the coming years, would take hold on public-university governing boards across the nation.Trustee or regent. Governor or visitor.Titles differ from state to state, but the fundamental duties of those who govern colleges are broadly agreed upon. Whether appointed or elected, the role of a college board member is that of a fiduciary, an ambiguous but potent term that boils down to this: You are entrusted with the well-being of the institution, putting the college’s interests above all others.It is expected that, as political power shifts at the state level, so too will the politics of university board members. There is consensus in higher education, however, that good governance relies upon board members who are unencumbered by political loyalties. Regional accreditation, a requirement for universities to receive federal financial aid, demands that boards be independent and, in many cases, specifically requires members to be free of undue influence from lawmakers, donors, or any other external groups.Some governance experts sense a fundamental change afoot. Fueled by growing skepticism of higher education, board members at public colleges across the nation increasingly comport themselves more as watchdogs than as collective guardians of sacred trusts. Some appear willing to trade the sober work of high-level policy making for the adrenaline rush of a good culture war.“There has always been political influence,” said William E. (Brit) Kirwan, a former chancellor of the University System of Maryland and a consultant with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. “But it has moved, at least to some institutions, to a very troubling degree.”In “too many instances” of late, Kirwan continued, board members are “making political judgments that have potential long-term consequences” for higher education.“I recognize the danger of romanticizing the good ol’ days,” Kirwan said, “but it’s certainly my perception that boards had a clearer understanding of their proper roles.”There are a host of reasons for why this might be happening now. The nation’s coarsened politics have seeped into every facet of American life, and higher education is no exception. Gerrymandered voting districts have empowered uncompromising lawmakers, who, in many states, play a central role in deciding who should serve on public university boards. At the state level, legislative and executive power are now largely concentrated within a single political party, decreasing the need to appoint college board members with bipartisan appeal.A Chronicle investigation, based on 75 interviews, reviews of more than 2,000 pages of public records, and an unprecedented analysis of appointments to public-university governing boards, reveals a system that is vulnerable to, if not explicitly designed for, an ideologically driven form of college governance rooted in political patronage and partisan fealty.Hundreds of sitting public-university board members govern 50 flagship universities across the nation. Of 411 board members appointed through a multistep political procedure, 285, or almost 70 percent, assumed their roles through an appointment and confirmation process controlled by a single political party. Just 93, or 22 percent, of politically appointed trustees navigated a confirmation process that included a meaningful bipartisan check. (The remainder have not yet been confirmed or, in two cases, a confirmation date could not be identified).Many students and faculty members are politically left of center, but those who appoint and confirm the major power players at public flagship campuses most often are not. Among board members who were confirmed through a single-party political process, the majority were put in place by Republicans, outnumbering Democratic-appointed and -confirmed board members nearly two to one.This says nothing of the dozens of trustees and regents who are directly elected, as happens in some states, or the government officials who sit on boards by virtue of their positions, including governors or their cabinet members. And in some states, board members can join through a governor’s appointment or a single chamber’s vote, with no confirmation process required.The resulting system of public-college governance is often dominated by political actors and their donors. Board members across the nation’s public flagship campuses or state systems have poured at least $19.7 million into political campaigns and partisan causes within their institution’s states, The Chronicle’s analysis shows. This figure is limited to state-level, nonfederal contributions that politically appointed board members made in the states in which they serve, and does not include additional donations from spouses, companies, or other family members associated with a board member.
There has always been political influence, but it has moved, at least to some institutions, to a very troubling degree.
After a wave of Republican victories like North Carolina’s in 2010, the march toward one-party domination of state legislatures began to climb. By 2013, states governed exclusively by Republicans numbered 25, while 12 had trifecta Democratic leadership, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan website Ballotpedia. It was the highest number of trifecta states in more than half a century. Today, there are 21 such states controlled by Republicans and 15 by Democrats.While not limited to Republicans, the most notable examples of politicized college governance in recent years have been staged in red states, where voters and politicians are more likely to view higher education with skepticism, if not hostility.The politicization of college governance comes at a pivotal moment for higher education, as board members navigate what Covid-19 means for postsecondary instruction. Not since 1918, when the flu killed hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S., has the fate of human life been so visibly entwined with the effectiveness and legitimacy of college trusteeship.On many campuses, the pandemic leadership test is not going well. The resumption of in-person instruction proved disastrous at the flagship University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which reversed course and moved online after just one week. North Carolina State soon followed suit. At other institutions, though, governing boards have made the calculation that remaining open is worth the risk, even as colleges have become national hot spots for a lethal virus.And when things go wrong, many students and faculty members — and even some public-health experts — are blaming boards, questioning whether they can exercise independent and sound judgment.In August, students at the Georgia Institute of Technology protested reopening plans with a “die in,” warning the Board of Regents, in one sign, that “the covid death clock is ticking.” A similar protest took place outside a board meeting at the University of Oklahoma. A sign recently draped near the University of Iowa read, “Board of Regents: Our Blood, Your Hands.”This outrage didn’t manifest overnight. It reflects deeper concerns about flawed governance that have surfaced over the past decade in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Connecticut, and South Carolina. Across the nation, states of darkened hues of red and blue have produced a generation of board members who now struggle to be seen as honest brokers in the midst of a sprawling crisis.Most of Gov. Scott Walker’s nominees to the University of Wisconsin system board flew through the state senate on a June afternoon in 2015. Republicans controlled the chamber, and Democrats voted with the majority party. Then came Michael M. Grebe.In the view of many Democrats, who didn’t have the votes to stop Walker’s appointments, Grebe was far too close to the governor and shared his polarizing views on higher education. Grebe, a corporate lawyer, is the son of Walker’s campaign co-chairman.
WisconsinBoard of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
18Total board members/14Politically appointed board members*
Political appointment process: Appointed by governor, confirmed by Senate
Appointed by GOP governor, confirmed by GOP majority: 9
Appointed by Dem governor, confirmed by GOP majority:: 2
Appointed by Dem governor, not yet confirmed: 3
Appointed by governor, confirmed by GOP majority: 9
Appointed by Dem governor, confirmed by GOP majority: 2
Appointed by Dem governor, not yet confirmed: 3
* Excludes two politically appointed student members, the state superintendent of public instruction, and the president or a designee of the Wisconsin Technical College System Board. The latter two are ex-officio members.
In a legislative hearing, Grebe had compared colleges to manufacturing plants, signaling a willingness to consolidate academic programs. When asked about his views on the Wisconsin Idea, a cherished mission statement embracing broad access to higher education, Grebe questioned how the system could fulfill that promise in a way that “protects taxpayers.” One lawmaker asked if the state was contributing enough to public colleges, mere days after a Republican-dominated finance committee cut $250 million from the system. “I think we are,” Grebe replied.
University of Wisconsin SystemWisconsin Democrats called out the appointment of Regent Michael M. Grebe for what they thought it was — the installation of a political crony who would line up behind Governor Walker’s agenda for public colleges.
Walker, who left college before earning his bachelor’s degree, had made attacks on higher education a central feature of his political persona. Shortly into his second term and mulling a run for president, he criticized professors for teaching too few classes, and his administration attempted to alter the system’s mission statement to focus on work-force needs.One after another, in the Senate, Democrats called Grebe’s appointment out for what they thought it was — the installation of a political crony who would line up behind Walker’s agenda for public colleges.And no one could stand in the way. The Senate chamber had become a “turnstile to just approve whatever the governor wants,” said Sen. Chris Larson, a Democrat from Milwaukee, one of the last to speak against Grebe.After the confirmation vote — split on party lines — someone in the gallery yelled, “That is an outrage!”Grebe and Walker declined to comment for this article.Trifecta Republican control was relatively new for Wisconsin when Grebe was confirmed. Democrats had dominated all of Wisconsin’s legislative chambers after the 2008 election, when 56 percent of voters there supported Obama. But the GOP 2010 wave flipped the house, senate, and governorship.In the years that followed Grebe’s confirmation, the board seemed a natural extension of the legislature Walker steered, picking up higher-education issues from politicians. Regents watered down policies on tenure after the legislature struck it from state law. In 2017, the assembly would go on to pass a bill on free speech, threatening expulsion for students who blocked others from expressing themselves. The board, following the lead of the State Assembly, passed a resolution on the issue weeks later.
USA TODAY NETWORKGov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin faced protests over his cuts in higher education. In his second term, the university’s governing board seemed an extension of the GOP-dominated legislature he steered.
There were consequences for the university. Several star researchers left Wisconsin, some attributing the decision directly to the state’s political climate. It was all enough to deeply trouble Charles Pruitt, a long-serving regent. He saw a board that, rather than beating back the “existential threat” of public disinvestment, had preoccupied itself with political wedge issues.At his final meeting, in 2016, Pruitt pleaded for a return to nonpartisan governance. He directed his comments toward board members who joined after 2011, when Walker took office.“I continue to cling to the hope and belief,” he said, “that this university is best served by regents who, when they pass through the doors of Van Hise Hall or the UW Union, strive not to be Republican regents or Democratic regents, but simply regents, of one of the finest public-university systems in the country.”Back in North Carolina, tensions were ratcheting up. After forcing out Ross as president, the board had sent an unmistakable message by hiring Margaret Spellings, a former U.S. secretary of education under President George W. Bush, to succeed him, which she did in 2016. There was, as one board member from the time described it, a “new-sheriff-in-town attitude.”By the spring of 2017, the board had axed three university research centers, including the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, a think tank at Chapel Hill led by Gene R. Nichol, a law professor who regularly skewered Republicans in newspaper columns. Now the board’s focus turned to the Center for Civil Rights, a legal-advocacy institute that was established at Chapel Hill in 2001, when Nichol was dean of the law school there.The center’s founding director was Julius L. Chambers, a legendary civil-rights lawyer and a graduate of North Carolina’s law school. Its primary function was to represent poor and minority clients across the state. The center’s two staff lawyers were often pitted against local governments in discrimination cases, focusing on issues that included alleged school segregation or environmental pollution from industrial hog farms — think particles of feces in the air — in minority communities.Steven B. Long, a university board member and tax lawyer, would have none of it. He argued that it was anathema for a center affiliated with a public university to sue state agencies. Stripping the center of its power to litigate became a point of passion for Long, who had served on the board of the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank that criticized liberalism at the university and had championed investigations of academic centers and institutes.In his crusade against the center, Long found an ally in Joseph T. Knott III, a lawyer and fellow board member with whom Long would sometimes commiserate over political correctness. In an email from the period, Knott referred to students as “snowflakes.” He also expressed consternation at a conservative website’s article about Appalachian State students being instructed on the use of gender-neutral pronouns.“I am going to complain about this to the chancellor,” Knott wrote. “This nuttiness has to stop.”The emails, which were obtained through a public-records request, show Long and Knott on a war footing with their faculty detractors. Responding to one of Nichol’s newspaper columns, which was critical of their agenda, Knott wrote, “It takes courage to face the dragon. It always has.”“Yep,” Long replied. “And these are dragons.”Long declined an interview request.On May 11, 2017, about a month after that email exchange, Knott attended a public-comment session about a proposed litigation ban for university-affiliated centers — a policy that, while broadly applicable, appeared to affect only the Center for Civil Rights. Elizabeth Haddix, then the senior staff lawyer at the center, recalls confronting Knott after the session. Why was he doing this? she asked.“What you don’t understand,” Haddix recalls him saying, “is that we won.”“There are legislators in our General Assembly who have appointed us,” Haddix says Knott explained. “We won, and it’s our turn to have the agenda here.”Knott, in an email to The Chronicle, denied saying this, adding that the sentiment “is perfectly counter to my philosophy of education.” “I was saying a law school ought not to be a law firm,” he said in a subsequent interview, “and we ought to stay in our lane and educate students.”
North CarolinaUniversity of North Carolina Board of Governors
24Total board members/24Politically appointed board members*
Political appointment process: Elected by state Senate and House.
Elected by GOP majority: 24
Elected by GOP majority: 24
* Excludes the president of the UNC Association of Student Governments, who is a nonvoting, ex officio member;
and a nonvoting emeritus member.
As debate over the civil rights center unfolded, there was another politically consequential shake-up of the board — one that purged members who considered themselves moderates and empowered an ascendent faction of fiscal hawks and higher-education skeptics.That same spring, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, had signed into law a bill that would reduce the size of the board from 32 to 24 members. The legislation was described by its proponents as a way to improve the governance of an unwieldy board, but others saw it as a sure-fire way to hasten the board’s lurch to the political right.As seats on the board diminished, members jockeyed to retain their positions, reminding lawmakers of the money they had raised for Republicans or the partisan battles they had waged in the preceding years.“I would challenge you to find anyone who has worked harder than myself to get conservatives elected and keep them there,” Henry Hinton, a board member up for reappointment, wrote in an email to House leaders, which The News & Observer, a Raleigh newspaper, reported on at the time. “In fact I have been leading an effort for a new PAC to raise $250,000 to help with the 2018 elections.”Hinton, a broadcast executive from Greenville, agreed with his colleagues on the board that the university had too much of a “liberal bent” and that things had “gotten out of hand” in that regard, he told The Chronicle. He had voted to shut down the poverty center, and he supported the proposed litigation ban. He was not, though, among the board members “running to the legislature with everything that came up,” Hinton said.As Hinton saw it, not only was he politically aligned with the Republicans but he had longstanding connections to the university that qualified him to be on the board. Before joining the Board of Governors, he had been chairman of the foundation board at the East Carolina campus. Hinton had spent years, too, as a radio and television commentator for ECU Pirates and UNC Tar Heels games. But if he wanted to get reappointed to the Board of Governors, “a high-ranking member of the legislature” had told him, it would be a good idea to remind House leaders how much money he had helped them raise, Hinton said.“In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t written it,” he said of the email to lawmakers. “I can apologize and pretend that isn’t how it happens, but that’s how it always happens. If that’s the only reason I had been put on that board, I think it would be a problem. But my record in higher education speaks for itself.”Hinton’s appeals to lawmakers weren’t enough to get him reappointed. He was passed over, along with a number of other board members who had appeared ascendent in the board’s hierarchy.“Look at who got taken out: the vice chair, the chair of governance, the chair of budget and finance, the secretary,” said Hinton, who had been chairman of the powerful governance committee. “These are the people that are normally in line for leadership positions, right? All of us were taken out.”The legislature, though, saw fit to reappoint Long, who months later was victorious in passing the litigation ban for centers. The Senate also extended a new term to Harry L. Smith Jr., a prolific Republican fund raiser whose approaching stint as chairman would mark a particularly tumultuous and contentious period.People in the system office had a name for his tenure: “The New Order.”Often, a political overhaul of public-college governance starts with a pivotal election. At the University of Tennessee, it began with a student patrolling the flagship campus, dressed as a penis.Year after year, students at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville tried to catch as many eyeballs as possible as they advertised their programming for an annual event called Sex Week. Examples of sessions included “Masturbation Nation,” “Your Vulva and You,” “Butt Stuff 2.0,” and “50 Shades of Orange: BDSM 101.” There was that penis costume, and once, they promoted Sex Week with a billboard on I-40.
TennesseeUniversity of Tennessee Board of Trustees
12Total board members/10Politically appointed board members*
Political appointment process: Appointed by governor, confirmed by House and Senate.
Appointed by GOP governor, confirmed by GOP majority: 10
Appointed by GOP governor, confirmed by GOP majority: 10
* Excludes a non-voting, board-appointed student member and the commissioner of agriculture, an ex-officio member.
Started in 2013, Sex Week brought together students and faculty members for explicit, frank conversations about sexuality. But in a culturally conservative state, it was a constant headache for campus leaders, who pleaded unsuccessfully with students to tone it down. A unanimous board vote allowing students to opt out of using their fees to fund Sex Week did little to appease state lawmakers, who described the programming as an affront to decency.Furious over the board’s failure to rein in Sex Week, lawmakers had an opportunity in 2018 to shake things up. New legislation shrank the size of the board, and the Republican governor put forward a slate of 10 people, including four reappointed trustees, to join the new group. They would all have to go before the Republican-controlled legislature and plead their cases for keeping their positions.The hearing took place during Sex Week in April 2018, just as the evangelical leader Franklin Graham took to Facebook, calling on his flock to condemn the “filthy trash” of Sex Week programming with emails to the university’s chancellor. More than 25,000 people shared the post.At the hearing, State Sen. Dolores R. Gresham, a Republican, made clear from her opening salvo that the returning board members would have to answer for Sex Week.Sex Week, she said, “is not education. It’s not even the free exchange of ideas. It seeks nothing more than to glorify depravity, and it takes the name of the university and drags it through the trash. … Human sexuality is a legitimate academic field of inquiry and should be approached in a scholarly manner. It is not a circus by which the dignity of the human person is denigrated and besmirched. What a betrayal.
U. of Tennessee Documents
“This governor and this legislature seek new leadership and new perspectives in the governance of the University of Tennessee,” she continued. “And the events on the flagship campus made us a spectacle and a national embarrassment again. … So, for those candidates for confirmation here, present, heed my words: We expect better. And we expect lots better.”William Evans, one of the reappointed trustees, had gone into the hearing knowing the confirmation wouldn’t be a rubber stamp. The state’s governor, Bill Haslam, had told Evans as much. But Evans had entered the chamber hoping he could change the senators’ minds. The content of Sex Week crosses the line, he conceded, but Evans tried to focus his remarks on academics. The flagship university in Knoxville had aimed to move up into the top 25 public universities in national rankings. The institution hadn’t made “material progress,” and he wanted to change that.None of it mattered. The next day, Evans’s name didn’t even come up for a vote. In fact, no one seeking reappointment made the cut.To anyone paying attention, the reason seemed unambiguous. They “were all voted down because of Sex Week,” Randy Boyd, the university’s interim president, said at a later board meeting. “It was because of the feeling by the legislature that the board was not listening to them, we were not engaged.”
Caitlyn Jordan, The Daily BeaconThe drag queen Lana Mars performed at Sex Week in 2019 at the U. of Tennessee at Knoxville. Sex Week brings together students and faculty for explicit, frank conversations about sexuality. Some lawmakers call it an affront to human decency.
Boyd was named interim president in September 2018. He spent part of the early months doing damage control, talking with lawmakers about Sex Week, among other things. He knew many of them and was fluent in their political language, having worked in state government and undertaken his own run for governor in the Republican primary not long before. As interim president, Boyd met with 80 percent of the state’s elected and senior appointed officials, according to a self-review he submitted later.To hear Boyd tell it, his charm offensive worked. He credited his outreach with producing the “largest state appropriation in UT history,” noting in the self-review that there hadn’t been any “punitive legislation … as a result of controversial issues.”In a recent interview with The Chronicle, Boyd said he did not think the board caved to legislative pressure, characterizing trustees’ work as independent. The frustration with the board, he said, was broader than Sex Week. Still, he said that board members seek to serve the state of Tennessee, whose residents are represented by elected officials. “We need to be responsive,” he said.In response to the state comptroller’s lengthy report on Sex Week, complete with a reader-advisory label for explicit content, Boyd pledged that he and the board were committed to “rectifying” the “frustration and embarrassment” that the event had caused the legislature.Tennessee’s new board then went after Sex Week, just as conservative lawmakers wanted. They eliminated the campus organization that distributed money for all student activities, including Sex Week, giving administrators more control over how the money was spent.Harry Smith’s term as chairman of North Carolina’s Board of Governors began in 2018, bringing with it a period of tumult that was punctuated by infighting and allegations of micromanagement. Ask critics of the board what has gone wrong at the university, and many will point toward the brief and consequential leadership tenure of Smith, a businessman who has said he only reluctantly joined the board in the first place.When State Sen. Phil Berger, one of North Carolina’s most powerful lawmakers, approached Smith about serving, in 2012, Smith’s first question was, what’s the Board of Governors? he told a reporter years later.What Smith lacked in knowledge about college governance, he more than made up for in political connections. A graduate of the East Carolina campus, Smith worked his way up in the air-filtration business, and his wealth made him a power player in North Carolina politics. (Smith has donated more than $218,000 to political causes and politicians within the state, nearly all of them Republicans, including Berger, federal and state records show.)Among system and campus officials, Smith was regarded as Berger’s man, dispatched to the boardroom to ferret out wasteful spending and administrative failure. He sent detailed requests for information from lower-level administrators, records show, questioning campus-level spending decisions that many felt were outside of his purview as the chairman of a policy-making body.
“The means may have been haphazard or clumsy, but in the end there was a consistent goal: We need more votes on our side.”
“I don’t care about the wine-and-cheese approach,” Smith told Business North Carolina magazine. “I’m a change agent.”Berger, in a statement provided to The Chronicle, said he never directed Smith or any other board member to pursue a particular agenda. “My philosophy on appointing members to the Board of Governors is well known,” Berger said. “I select people, including Mr. Smith, who I believe are capable of making sound decisions and who agree that affordability in education is a top priority. “I expect those people to think and act for themselves and use their own best judgment,” he continued. “I have no interest in, nor do I engage in, directing my appointees on the details of their work.”As a “change agent,” Smith concluded, there was plenty to fix in his own backyard. He was convinced that his alma mater, East Carolina, had gone off the rails, allowing enrollment to slip and blowing money on stupid investments. In July 2016, Smith pressed campus officials for details on a recreation center that had been built years earlier. What was this boondoggle?In an email to Frederick (Rick) Niswander, East Carolina’s vice chancellor for administration and finance, Smith unloaded. He wanted to know how much the facility cost and who had approved the project.“I want the detail,” Smith wrote at 12:16 a.m., copying fellow board members and the system’s president.The facility, Niswander responded, was used extensively in the fall and spring.“I’m not buying that,” Smith responded. “What’s it cost and is it worth it? Please tell them to shoot me straight on utilization. I think it’s a pig and we are putting lipstick on it, and I’m not the only one that thinks that.”Costly and underutilized facilities, Smith told The Chronicle in a recent text message, are a “big problem” driving up the cost of higher education. During his tenure on the board, Smith said, his goal was to use data to help the board better understand what was working at the university and what was not. But Smith’s approach, particularly toward East Carolina, often provoked criticism of micromanagement or felt punitive to the institutions on the receiving end.“I was trying to build a model so that we could see which schools are doing great, where schools are doing OK, and which schools needed help, right?” Smith said in an interview. “That was the goal. And I think it was a good goal. I did a terrible job of communicating that.”As a system-level board member, Smith’s charge was to set policy and strategy for 16 postsecondary campuses. But he had frequent and specific suggestions for East Carolina, including a thorny proposal that the campus go into business with him on a failed apartment complex, which might have been profitable if the campus required students to live there. (East Carolina officials declined to go along with the idea.)Cecil P. Staton Jr., who was chancellor of East Carolina at the time, concluded that Smith was driven at least in part by a desire to please Berger, the state senator who had put Smith on the board.
Jay Clark, ECUCecil P. Staton (right), then-chancellor of East Carolina U., publicly criticized funding cuts for his campus, prompting a rebuke from the politically connected chairman of the system’s board. Margaret Spellings, president of UNC at the time, looks on.
“Harry boasted sometimes that he could figure out how to save a billion dollars a year,” said Staton, who, in addition to a career in academic administration, served five terms as a Republican in the Georgia State Senate. “And it was as though he was going to give that billion dollars back to Berger.”As chancellor, Staton said, it was part of his job to advocate for more financial support for East Carolina. But he quickly learned that Smith bristled at public criticism of Republicans in the General Assembly.In the summer of 2018, a couple of weeks after Smith became chairman of the board, the News & Observer published a seemingly innocuous op-ed by Staton. For the most part, Staton trumpeted the accomplishments of East Carolina’s professors. In one critical paragraph, though, the chancellor complained about state budget cuts. Smith “was incensed by that,” Staton said.After the column was published, Smith apologized in an email to two Republican House members for the chancellor’s “completely inappropriate” transgression. “Please accept my personal apologies for such a poorly written and thought out op-ed,” he wrote, pledging to meet with Stanton and explain “in great detail” the chancellor’s leadership failures.The op-ed also frustrated Kieran Shanahan, an East Carolina trustee, who told Smith, in an email, “I assure you this has my full attention and I am pissed.”Smith’s criticisms weren’t confined to private emails. On several occasions, he took to Pirate Radio 1250, a local station, to complain about decisions at East Carolina. He questioned a $1.3-million expenditure on a new chancellor’s residence, and he criticized an athletic director’s contract extension. (Smith was hardly the only critic of these decisions, but some at East Carolina thought that a board member publicly lambasting campus leaders did more harm than good.)Behind the scenes, Smith was relentless in his pursuit of information. Over a six-month span, beginning around the time of his election as chairman, Smith and Spellings exchanged more than 530 text messages, public records the university provided to The Chronicle show. Smith’s texts ran the gamut, from questions about the dress code for an upcoming event — “Khakis and walking shoes with a sport coat,” Spellings replied — to admonishments over perceived slights.“I took great disrespect to an email verses [sic] a phone call,” Smith once wrote to Spellings.Whatever concerns there may have been about Smith’s approach as chairman, he was perceived to be politically bulletproof because of his relationship with Berger, according to several former system and campus-level officials, who requested anonymity, saying that they feared retaliation against the university.“It is widely understood that you cannot do business in North Carolina if the most powerful politician in the state is out for you,” a former high-ranking system official said.Asked about the former official’s statement, Berger said, the critic very likely “opposes all efforts we have made to address real and substantive problems in higher education.”
Lisa Philip, WUNCHarry Smith’s term as chairman of North Carolina’s Board of Governors began in 2018. It was characterized by infighting and accusations of mismanagement.
“It’s deeply unfair to cite vague accusations that have no basis in fact,” he said, “and treat them as legitimate when the person doesn’t even take him or herself seriously enough to be named.”The notion that Smith had Berger’s political protection gave rise to a phrase in the system office that, Staton says, “nauseated me”: “We are just going to go along with the new order.”The new order wasn’t so much about ideology as it was about power and perspective, several former board members and university officials told The Chronicle. The board increasingly acted as an investigatory body in the mold of an inspector general, holding accountable — rather than championing — the university.“I remember one board member who, on his first day, said, ‘I’m here as a representative of the General Assembly,’” recalls W. Louis Bissette Jr., a former Republican mayor of Asheville who preceded Smith as chairman. “I was frankly astonished by what he said. But looking back on it, you know, that’s really what was happening.”Soon, controversy became the norm. Within Smith’s first days as chairman, the search for a new chancellor at the Western Carolina campus fell apart after Thomas H. Fetzer, a lobbyist and former Republican mayor of Raleigh, sponsored a rogue investigation into the credentials of a leading candidate for the position. The move, many of his colleagues said, undermined the president’s authority and violated rules of confidentiality by disclosing the candidate’s name to a third party.This wasn’t the first time Fetzer had acted outside of the full board. In 2017, he drafted a letter— signed by 15 board members, but without the full group’s knowledge — castigating Spellings, the president, and Bissette, then the board’s chairman, for their handling of a controversy over a confederate monument, known as Silent Sam, at Chapel Hill. Debate over the fate of the moment, which still drags on, thrust the university into a polarizing national conflict over Confederate symbols. It pitted board members, who argued that state law required the statue to remain on campus, against students and others who saw it as a hateful homage to slavery and racisim.Controversies large and small continually drew the board in. Faced with big challenges, such as expanding access to low-income students, the board often seemed more concerned with what system officials and chancellors viewed as small-ball political feuds that were of interest only to them or a few lawmakers.“You’re majoring in the minors,” Spellings was known to tell board members.Some board members believed North Carolina needed a more active governing board that would press for details. The board’s more aggressive posture has been mischaracterized as political, according to Marty Kotis, whose current term on the board began in 2017.“When we do things, people like to attribute it to politics, but it’s more that we’re not rubber stamping,” said Kotis, who describes himself as libertarian. “Boards of the past have been there to enjoy the perks of the board. You would go to campus and be treated like a rockstar.“The disputes we have between us are not Republican versus Democrat; they are more often between Republican and Republican,” he continued. “That’s called dysfunctional because they are actually discussing things. Dysfunctional is a board that rubber stamps.”The board, though, often appeared more focused on hot-button issues than the humdrum of higher education management. Members clamored to serve on the budget and finance committee, where they could scrutinize spending, but showed little interest in the mission-critical area of academic affairs, several former members said. As Spellings hammered away at a strategic plan, board members devoted meetings to what some viewed as politically symbolic initiatives, such as moving the system office out of Chapel Hill — the site of the flagship campus that some conservatives have dubbed “the people’s republic of Chapel Hill.”By October 2018, just two and a half years into her tenure as president, it was all too much for Spellings. In a surprise announcement, Spellings said she would resign her post with two years remaining on her contract. Coming as it did, just a couple of months after protesters at Chapel Hill had toppled Silent Sam, some speculated that political controversy had worn her down. Others figured she was simply exhausted by dysfunction on the board.In an interview with The Chronicle, Spellings declined to go into detail about her reasons for leaving.“It was the hardest professional decision I’ve ever made,” she said. “Period. Paragraph.”At a farewell reception, Spellings gave each of the chancellors a pewter Jefferson cup engraved with a folksy maxim: “When the horse dies, get off.”In the run-up to Connecticut’s 2018 gubernatorial election, an outsider Republican candidate painted a bleak picture of the state’s declining fortunes under years of Democratic rule. Bob Stefanowski, the Republican hopeful, pointed to the state’s shrinking population, and its struggles to retain college graduates and big corporations, as evidence of the need for change.Pro-Stefanowski campaign advertisements drove home these themes with ominous headlines: “Connecticut on the Brink.” “GE’s Leaving Connecticut.” Easier to miss was the small text, in the final frames of several ads, which disclosed who had helped to pay for them: Denis Nayden, a longtime gubernatorial appointee to the University of Connecticut’s board.Nayden was a UConn Huskies fanatic. He had been on the board for more than 15 years, appointed by Republican and Democratic governors. He and his wife had donated more than $5 million to the campus and its foundation, sponsoring scholarships, faculty development, and facilities. Nayden had helped raise hundreds of millions more through the university’s first-ever capital campaign, and he won a distinguished-alumni award in 1999.
ConnecticutUniversity of Connecticut Board of Trustees
21Total board members/12Politically appointed board members*
Political appointment process: Appointed by governor, confirmed by House or Senate
Appointed by Dem governor, confirmed by Dem majority: 9
Appointed by Dem governor, not yet confirmed: 2
Open position: 1
Appointed by Dem governor, confirmed by Dem majority: 9
Appointed by Dem governor, not yet confirmed: 2
Open position: 1
* Excludes alumni-elected and student-elected members, in addition to five ex-officio members — the governor, the chair of the UConn Health Board of Directors, and three state commissioners.
Nayden, who was up for reappointment to UConn’s board in 2019, was also loyal to his former colleague Stefanowski, the Republican candidate. They’d worked together at GE Capital, and the two had talked economic policy and education as Stefanowski considered his run for governor, according to the candidate. The trustee would ultimately donate more than $100,000 to Stefanowski and a committee supporting his campaign, which, if successful, would break a yearslong trifecta of Democratic governance in the state.It wasn’t to be. In 2018, Stefanowski lost to his Democratic opponent, Ned Lamont. In short order, Lamont’s staff set their sights on reshaping the UConn board with the help of prominent Democrats who served as trustees, according to emails reviewed by The Chronicle, which have not been previously disclosed.Paul Mounds, who was then the governor’s chief operating officer, wrote that his colleagues should meet with Democrats on the board and “let them know who we want as chair and vice chair and have them work with their members to execute.” Lamont’s staff also developed questions to ask candidates for the flagship’s president, and organized a meet-and-greet with a finalist late in the process.In Connecticut, the governor serves as the president of the board, but the chair leads board meetings when the governor is not present. Mounds told The Chronicle that the governor had hoped to elevate UConn, one of the “largest and biggest brands” of the state.January turned to February, and February to March, without new board appointments. Then came March Madness; the women’s basketball team was on its way to the Final Four in Tampa, Fla. The governor and Nayden, who with his wife had donated $3 million to campus basketball facilities and scholarships for players, each planned to go.
Jessica Hill, APHead Coach Geno Auriemma (left), of the U. of Connecticut, presents Denis and Britta Nayden with a team jersey before an NCAA game against UC Davis. The Naydens, UConn alumni, have donated $3 million toward the new UConn Basketball Champions Center and for scholarships for student athletes.
Just before the Final Four, Nayden and Mounds spoke. Nayden wouldn’t be reappointed to the board. The governor wanted to go in a different direction, Mounds told him, according to a summary Nayden wrote of the call, which was obtained by The Chronicle.“I asked if this was a political decision,” Nayden later wrote to the university’s president, board chair, and a few others. “Paul said not predominantly (I think he was hedging).”Nayden asked — twice — for the governor to meet with him, he wrote. Nothing. Nayden was “flabbergasted,” he wrote, “particularly after everything that I have done and contributed and the breadth of my business background.”“Pathetic!” he wrote. “I am sorry to say, this decision will affect me greatly. It is a sad day for me and a bad day for UConn.”Nayden declined to comment for this article.In an interview with The Chronicle, Mounds said the governor’s decision was “at no point” political. But when asked whether he had told Nayden that the decision was “not predominantly” a political one, Mounds demurred. “I have a lot of uncomfortable conversations with people,” he said.Connecticut Republicans were livid. The decision signaled that the governor’s office would treat the university like any other state agency: UConn’s people would be Lamont’s people.“There’s no way in hell that you can describe that as anything other than retribution,” Stefanowski, the candidate Nayden had supported, told The Chronicle. “It tells you that if you want to stay on the board at UConn, you better not cross the governor. Because he’s now shown that he’s vindictive.”The board chairman, Thomas E. Kruger, wouldn’t finish out the year in his position. He resigned days after Nayden got the news that he was ousted, saying Lamont should be “close” to the UConn chair.Thomas D. Ritter stepped in as interim chairman. Ritter, who assumed the role because of his position as vice chair, was the former speaker of the House, a political power player — and a Democrat.
Gavin McIntyre, The Post and CourierStudents, faculty, and alumni protested after the U. of South Carolina board voted to make retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr. the new president. Caslen was a favorite of Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, and the university’s accreditation agency found evidence of undue political influence in the appointment.
Connecticut is among a dozen states in which the governor holds a seat on the governing board of a public flagship university system, providing a legitimate avenue for the state’s top elected official to exert direct influence on campus affairs. Such arrangements are ripe for controversy, as recently evidenced at the University of South Carolina, where the governor is ex-officio chair. That board’s decision, in 2019, to install as president the favored candidate of Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, despite widespread opposition, prompted scrutiny from the university’s accreditation agency, which found evidence of undue political influence.The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges, South Carolina’s accrediting agency, did not sanction the university. But a damning report, written by two independent consultants, concluded that the board had a “fundamentally misguided governance culture” with “a predilection for political governance.”Public records, which came to light in the wake of the controversy, showed that the governor’s office saw the university’s presidency as a prize awarded to the ruling political party.“The Democrats hate us,” the governor’s chief of staff wrote in a text message after the board selected McMaster’s pick to lead the university. “We took their castle.”C. Dan Adams, who serves as the governor’s designee on the board, replied, “It’s our turn!!”This past January, some five years after North Carolina’s Republican revolution, Phil Lewis and Robert B. (Robbie) Moore Jr., two trustees for the East Carolina campus, met a student for lunch at the Villedge Wood Fired Kitchen & Bar, nestled in the Greenville, N.C., Hilton. The trustees made her an offer: Let us secretly pay for your campaign to become student-government president, and in turn help us to secure majority control of the East Carolina board.In North Carolina, the Board of Governors sets system-level policy, but some authority is delegated to campus-level boards, which include student presidents as voting members. Eight of a campus’s appointed board members are elected by the Board of Governors, and four by the legislature.Lewis, an insurance executive, grew up on a tenant farm in the town of Farmville, outside of Greenville, before graduating from East Carolina in 1977, according to an online biography. He was appointed to the East Carolina board by the Board of Governors in 2019, along with Moore, a billboard-company owner and Republican donor, who was appointed by the General Assembly.The trustees told Shelby Hudson, the student, whom they had first contacted on Facebook, that the board needed a “strong Republican leader” like her, Hudson would later recount in a statement. They wanted to help her become student-government president — a position she had unsuccessfully run for before.By this time, the years of controversy at the University of North Carolina had taken their toll. Resignations of top officials were the regular order. In 2019, a few months after Spellings announced her plans to resign, so too did Carol L. Folt, whose chancellorship at Chapel Hill had become consumed by quarrels with the board and the legislature over the fate of Silent Sam. Next came Staton, who, in a recent lawsuit, says Smith used his power as chairman of the Board of Governors to have Staton forced out, following a yearslong campaign of “relentless attacks” on the chancellor. “Defendant Smith,” the legal complaint states, “was appointed to the UNC-BOG for no reason other than he had contributed to and raised substantial funds for the political campaigns of top legislators in the North Carolina General Assembly.” Smith, who denies any wrongdoing, resigned from the board in February, citing professional demands.
A Secret Meeting
In January, Phil Lewis and Robbie Moore, then trustees at East Carolina University, offered to help pay for a student’s student-government-presidency campaign. They hoped to get a voting ally on a divided governing board.In the meeting, recorded by Shelby Hudson, the student, Lewis and Moore mentioned their ties to lawmakers and offered to introduce Hudson to one of them. They described a perk she’d get as president: Access to the chancellor’s suite for football games.In this clip, Moore speaks first, describing John Bell, the Republican House majority leader.Portions of the audio, obtained through a public-records request, were redacted by East Carolina officials, citing student privacy.
With all of this collateral damage in the rearview mirror, Lewis and Moore proposed that the solution for East Carolina was, in fact, more politicization of university governance. What Lewis and Moore did not realize, though, was that Hudson, who had been jittery about the meeting, was recording the conversation.If Hudson would agree to accept their help, Lewis explained in the recording, she would be welcomed into a powerful network of state lawmakers.“Robbie is really in with the legislature,” Lewis said.Winning a student-government election, Lewis opined, was about “name recognition.” Hudson might need signs, he said. Well, as it happened, Moore owned a billboard company.“How big could your sign be?” Lewis asked. Lewis also offered to donate, “As long as you don’t have to show where you get the money.”(Most of Hudson’s comments were redacted by the university, citing privacy concerns).Envisioning their alliance with other board members, the trustees said, they could ensure that East Carolina did not raise student fees again.“If you would run and win, we’ll help you,” Lewis said. “We’ll give you seven votes.”Moore, Lewis added, “should be the chair” of the board once the votes could be secured.Secret donations. Vote trading. This was the stuff of “bare knuckle politics,” East Carolina trustees wrote in a letter detailing the evidence. If this kind of behavior was permissible, the trustees said, the “gross exploitation” of future student leaders could not be far behind.Under fierce criticism, both trustees resigned.The Lewis and Moore episode shocked a lot of North Carolinians, including members of the Board of Governors, many of whom see in the story a bungled and clownish power grab by a couple of rogue actors. Scholars of the state’s changing politics, though, see the matter differently. Among them is J. Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College, in Salisbury, N.C., who says the story of two trustees trying to influence a student-government election is part and parcel of the winner-take-all style of politics that has gripped the state over the past decade.“That is political calculation and strategy,” Bitzer said. “The means may have been haphazard or clumsy, but in the end there was a consistent goal: We need more votes on our side.“It’s a dangerous signal, in my opinion — the hyperinfluence of partisanship and the lack of basic transparency and accountability in a perceptually independent, nonpartisan environment.”The changes North Carolina has seen in the past decade are no accident. There was an Obama backlash. There was a Tea Party movement. There was a growing national skepticism of higher education, and an uneasiness among many North Carolinians that the university had swung too far to the political left under Democratic rule.But there was money, too. Lots of it. Among all of the state’s wealthy donors, some of whom now govern the university, few have put more effort into turning the political tide in North Carolina than James Arthur (Art) Pope. A donor to Republican campaigns, Pope is chairman of a foundation that has steered millions of dollars into agenda-setting free-market think tanks.Higher education has figured prominently into Pope’s broader political agenda. The John William Pope Foundation, of which Pope is chairman, finances the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, which targets “shallow and trendy” teaching. The John Locke Foundation, another recipient of Pope foundation money, was established in response to what its president has described as a liberal stranglehold on universities.Pope, a former Republican N.C. House member and budget director, has been called a lot of names. He has been described as “the Godfather of Republican politics,” and he is credited as a key financier of Redmap, a project designed to install Republican majorities in statehouses across the nation. This June, Pope’s allies in the North Carolina Senate gave him a new title: member of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.The regular churn of appointments to North Carolina’s commissions and agencies had rolled on, even in a pandemic. As prescribed by procedure, Pope’s appointment came by way of a routine legislative resolution. It passed easily, despite some Democratic opposition, concluding, as such edicts do: “Now, therefore, be it resolved by the Senate…”Sarah Brown and Emma Dill contributed to this article. Brian O’Leary designed the interactive. Illustration by Nix + Gerber for The Chronicle.