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The hire and the fury: Nikole Hannah-Jones at UNC
Read all of The News & Observer’s coverage of the University of North Carolina’s decision to hire the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist and the controversy that ensued.
A new crop of leaders tapped to govern higher education in North Carolina will have a hand in deciding how UNC-Chapel Hill moves forward from the latest challenges to plague the university.
Six new members joined UNC-CH’s Board of Trustees on Wednesday, shifting the governing body of the state’s flagship university farther to the right. Four new members were also appointed this year to the UNC System Board of Governors, which sets policy and influences the priorities of North Carolina’s higher education system.
Before we break down both the new and old influential players who will determine the North Carolina higher education system’s future, here’s what you need to know:
The incoming slate of politically-connected members to the state’s Board of Trustees, many of whom were hand-picked by the Republican-majority state legislature, are expected to govern UNC-CH more conservatively than their predecessors in the wake of a controversy over Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure at UNC-Chapel Hill — a debacle that placed the school in the national spotlight. The new board will guide the way the school turns the corner from that.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a question of conservative, liberal or moderate,” said newly-elected Board Chair David Boliek. “I would say it’s a question of people who love the university and want to move it forward.”
Every current member of the UNC System Board of Governors and UNC-CH Board of Trustees were appointed by a conservative-run state legislature. And only one of the former lawmakers that sits on either board is a Democrat.
In late June, the Board of Trustees voted to award Hannah-Jones tenure after its monthslong delay made national headlines.
Its initial failure to grant Hannah-Jones lifelong tenure as part of being hired as Knight Chair at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media drew ire across the state and country, putting pressure on the board to reverse course.
Hannah-Jones ultimately declined the position, instead taking a similar job at Howard University.
In part because of his handling of Hannah-Jones’ tenure, UNC-CH faculty members met Wednesday over concerns Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz may be ousted in the near future. It remains to be seen whether the Board of Governors will take a vote at their meeting next week to remove him, and how much of a say the campus trustees might have in that move.
At its first meeting Thursday, however, after UNC-CH trustees hashed out some of the university’s recent issues and legal matters in closed session, Boliek expressed the board’s support for Guskiewicz and a desire to move past the recent controversies.
“We are supportive of the chancellor as we work together to move this university forward,” Boliek said.
North Carolina General Assembly leadership
Members of North Carolina’s state House and Senate are tasked with appointing all members to the UNC System’s Board of Governors and four members to UNC-CH’s Board of Trustees, extending lawmakers’ influence far beyond the halls of the General Assembly. The Board of Governors then in turn appoints eight trustees.
Many current members of both of these boards were hand-picked by the state’s top Republicans: Senate leader Phil Berger, who is from Eden; and House Speaker Tim Moore, who is a UNC-CH graduate. Lobbyists, former state legislators and top political donors cycle on and off the boards year after year.
UNC System Board of Governors
Tasked with governing the UNC System, appointing members to all 16 of North Carolina’s public universities and electing both chancellors for each school along with the UNC System president, the 24-member Board of Governors is the most powerful of the higher education governing bodies in the state. Board members can serve up to three full four-year terms.
Both the UNC-CH Chancellor and trustees chairman recommended four Board of Trustees appointees to the Board of Governors this year. However, the Board of Governors did not appoint a single of the chancellor or chairman’s recommendations.
“We just thought the leadership at Chapel Hill needed a little more rejuvenation on the board,” said Board of Governors member David Powers, who heads up the appointment process for trustees. “We chose to go in a different direction.”
Their selections included a politically-connected former Board of Governors member and two former Republican lawmakers.
UNC System staff/aides
Beginning in 2019, three consultants were hired on a team to aid interim President Bill Roper in the transition of power as the system searched for a new president:
- Jim Blaine, who formerly served as Sen. Berger’s chief of staff.
- Former lobbyist and NC GOP executive director Chris McClure.
- Former Republican state Sen. Pete Brunstetter.
After a yearlong search, the Board of Governors tapped Peter Hans, a former lobbyist and Republican political adviser, as system president in August 2020. Hans was most recently president of the North Carolina Community College System. And he served as a consultant to former UNC President Margaret Spellings and three terms on the Board of Governors, including serving as chair.
At the time of his hire, Gov. Roy Cooper, Berger and Moore issued a joint statement saying Hans was “the right choice” for the job.
At least one of the consultants — Blaine — is still contracting with the UNC System even though Roper’s transition and the search are over.
In March 2020, McClure was named executive vice president and chief of staff with the UNC System, however, he does not currently work for the system office. McClure now works as a chief strategist and senior advisor to the UNC-CH chancellor.
Other politically-tied employees:
- Andrew Tripp, also former Berger chief of staff, serves as UNC System’s general counsel.
- Bart Goodson, Moore’s former chief of staff, is the senior vice president for government relations at the UNC System — serving as a direct link between the system and the legislature.
Norma Houston, who currently serves as Hans’ chief of staff, has Democratic political ties. She worked for former UNC President Erskine Bowles and the late former N.C. Senate leader Marc Basnight.
Returning BOG members
This year, the state Senate reappointed to the board:
The state House reappointed this year:
Members whose terms have not yet expired:
- Jim Holmes, who helped orchestrate the Silent Sam Confederate monument settlement that was later overturned by a judge. Holmes also employed Republican House Majority leader Rep. John Bell until last year at his company, Sentinel Risk Advisors.
- David Powers, a well-connected lobbyist who represents DraftKings, the employer of one newly-elected Board of Trustees member.
- Thom Goolsby, a lobbyist and former state Senator.
- Mark Holton, Alex Mitchell, Phil Byers, Terry Hutchens, Anna Spangler Nelson, Temple Sloan and Pearl Burris-Floyd.
New BOG members appointed by the legislature
- Lee Roberts, a partner at an investment firm and former budget director for then-Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican.
- Sonja Phillips Nichols, president and CEO of a security-services firm and former Republican state Senate candidate. Nichols ran in 2020 against Sen. Jeff Jackson for his Charlotte seat.
- Kirk Bradley, a real estate developer and CEO of a real estate investment firm in the Triangle.
- John Fraley, a former Republican member of the North Carolina General Assembly.
Former Democratic state Sen. Joel Ford, who was not appointed this year but is still a fairly new member of the board, was known in the state legislature for his willingness to work with Republicans. Appointed in 2020, the state Senate tapped Ford to fill out the term of Darrell Allison, who resigned from the UNC board in September to become chancellor of Fayetteville State University. Ford is the only Democrat on the board.
UNC-CH Board of Trustees officers
Every member of the board graduated from UNC-CH. The board’s top members:
- Newly elected chair Boliek works with Williford. Boliek is also a former journalist, political consultant and public relations professional. He voted against granting Hannah-Jones tenure in June.
- John Preyer, the new vice chair, who is the co-founder and president of an environmental company. Preyer, who has close ties to Berger, also voted against granting Hannah-Jones tenure.
New BOT members appointed by the legislature or BOG
The new members are:
- Former state Sen. Rob Bryan
- Former state Rep. Perrin Jones, who served a short term before losing in a close race against Democratic Rep. Brian Farkas for NC House District 9, in Greenville.
- DraftKings executive Malcolm Turner. Board of Governors member Pope criticized his appointment to the board, pointing to DraftKings’ promotion of sports betting in college sports as a conflict of interest. The fantasy sports company is also lobbying the legislature to legalize sports betting in the state outside of tribal casinos.
- Businesswoman Ramsey White.
- Real estate developer and former Board of Governors member Marty Kotis, who was appointed by the state Senate. Kotis has made numerous contributions to North Carolina Republicans in recent years, including Berger.
- Vinay Patel, who owns a chain of hotels in Charlotte, and who was appointed by the state House.
Returning BOT members
Former vice chair Gene Davis, who has worked with Board of Governors member Holley and is close with Moore. Davis voted in favor of granting Hannah-Jones tenure.
Asked if he received heat for his decision to vote yes, Davis, who was appointed by Moore, said that the speaker reached out to him in the hours after the vote.
“Speaker Moore had sent me a text to let me know that he was confident that the way I voted was best for the university,” Davis said in an interview with The News & Observer Wednesday.
Davis said Moore told him: “Gene, I may disagree with what you’re gonna do, but I want you to do whatever you think is best for the university.”
Davis said of the possibility that Guskiewicz could be ousted: “We all just need to take a deep breath.”
Other returning members are Teresa Artis Neal, Ralph Meekins and Allie Ray McCullen. McCullen also voted no for tenure for Hannah-Jones.
Clayton Somers serves as assistant secretary of the Board of Trustees, and participates in all of those meetings.
Somers previously served as Moore’s chief of staff and works closely with the state legislature as UNC-CH’s Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs. He and BOG member Jim Holmes orchestrated the Silent Sam Confederate monument settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans that brought sharp criticism to Chapel Hill and was later overturned by a judge.
As the school year approaches, these new and returning leaders will likely continue to be tested, showing where their allegiances lie.
CORRECTION: Clarification: This story has been updated to include more context on some of the key players’ previous and current roles at the UNC System.
Corrected Jul 16, 2021