UNC System leaders axed DEI. It reflects their own hypocrisy on diversity | Opinion

The UNC System Board of Governors voted Thursday on a policy that guts diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at public universities across North Carolina. It’s a move that’s necessary, they say, in order to uphold a deep-rooted commitment to diversity of thought.

“Our universities will support intellectual freedom, not promote a particular ideology ... North Carolina is a diverse state, and our public universities belong to everyone,” UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey wrote in a statement following last month’s initial committee vote.

But as the board weighs important decisions about diversity-related matters, it’s also holding up a mirror to itself. The governing board of North Carolina’s public university system is woefully lacking in ideological diversity, and its members are far more reflective of the Republican leaders who appoint them than of the state and system they ought to represent.

The Board of Governors, which oversees all 17 UNC System campuses, has 24 members. The General Assembly appoints all 24 members. Of the 23 current members, just two are registered Democrats. Sixteen members — two-thirds of the board — are registered Republicans. The remaining five members are registered as unaffiliated, though several of them have donated significant sums to Republican candidates. The board has one vacancy, as Lee Roberts resigned from his role in January to serve as UNC-Chapel Hill’s interim chancellor.

Many members also have political backgrounds. Harry Brown, who was appointed in 2023, is a former Republican lawmaker who served as Senate majority leader for a decade. Also appointed in 2023: Woody White, another former Republican senator. And in 2020, the General Assembly appointed Art Pope, one of the most influential Republican donors in North Carolina, to the board.

Chris Marsicano, assistant professor of educational studies at Davidson College, noted that North Carolina is one of only two states that has the legislature appoint the governing board. In most cases, the governor makes the appointments.

He said that in 2005, the BOG had eight Republicans and 22 Democrats, but by 2013 there was not a single Democrat. Now there are two.

“They went from having some Republicans to almost exclusively Republican and Republican-leaning members within 15 years,” he said.

That’s not for lack of trying by Democrats. State Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Greensboro Democrat and former member of the Board of Governors, said that nominees she has proposed have not been considered by the Senate. Even when Democrats were in the majority, Robinson said, they were committed to having diversity by having the minority party appoint members. She noted that House Speaker Tim Moore was appointed to the Board of Governors in 1997 when he was chairman of the Cleveland County Republican Party.

“Very seldom have we gotten any support, regardless of the caliber of nominees,” she said. “We’ve put forward some of the best leaders that North Carolina has, but the Senate refuses to appoint them.”

State Sen. Dan Blue, a Wake County Democrat and the Senate’s minority leader, said people who could make strong contributions to the board don’t want to enter the nominating process.

“Multiple people told me, ‘Why go through all this knowing it’s not going anywhere?’” he said.

Instead, Robinson said, Republican lawmakers are appointing people “who are their friends and who have made contributions to their campaigns. It has nothing to do with the resumes of these people.”

Indeed, many members of the Board of Governors have made hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Republican candidates for state and federal office, including Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger.

Diversity among UNC-Chapel Hill trustees

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, which recently voted to shift UNC’s DEI funding to public safety and police, is similarly homogeneous. There are 14 voting members, and more than 75% of them are registered Republicans. There is not a single registered Democrat on the board. There are three former lawmakers on the board, one of whom is now a registered lobbyist. Also on the board is Jim Blaine, Berger’s former chief of staff and one of the state’s most prominent political consultants. The board’s former chair, Dave Boliek, who still sits on the board, is the Republican nominee for state auditor in November’s general election.

Trustees, however, have spoken at length about the importance of diversity of thought, and how conservative voices are stifled in favor of liberal ones in Chapel Hill. That commitment to ideological diversity was the purported motivation for fast-tracking the development of a School of Civic Life and Leadership, intended to be a haven of sorts for conservative thought on campus. Boliek, for instance, told Fox News that the school is an “effort to remedy” the lack of right-of-center views on campus.

Roger Perry, a Chapel Hill developer who chaired the Board of Trustees from 2007 to 2009, said the makeup of the board has become more political.

During his era, the governor and Board of Governors appointed trustees. Since then, the governor has been cut out and trustees are appointed by the Board of Governors, the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tempore.

To be appointed now, Perry said, “I’m sure there’s a political litmus test, or you have holy water put on you by the Senate president pro tem or the speaker.”

Before Republicans took control of the legislature, Perry said, trustees would recommend new members based on their volunteer service to the university, regardless of their political affiliations.

“The qualifications that were necessary 15 years ago are totally different from the qualifications today,” Perry said. “On my board, I couldn’t tell you who was registered one way or the other.”

“That is not to say all 12 members on the Board of Trustees haven’t paid their dues in terms of service. There are several who have, but most have not,” he said.

Perry said the tight political control reflects Republican lawmakers’ desire to alter the university’s prevailing progressive culture and its effect on students.

“I think they do fear that the university turns out people who vote against them,” Perry said. “That’s true, but it’s not because they get indoctrinated, it’s because they get educated.”

Little appetite for change

The boards don’t appear eager for people to know much about them. A list is available on the Board of Governors website, but the page doesn’t appear with a simple Google search and can be difficult to navigate. On the Board of Trustees website, some biographies appear incomplete. For example, one member’s biography does not mention the term he served as a state lawmaker, and Blaine’s biography greatly understates the extent of his ties to Berger and the legislature. Yet these people are tasked with making significant decisions about North Carolina’s prized university system, a massive public expenditure and one of the state’s largest employers.

Former UNC System President Tom Ross served as co-chairman of the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Higher Education in North Carolina, which Gov. Roy Cooper created in 2022 to assess and recommend changes to the governance structure of the UNC System. In 2015, a Republican-dominated Board of Governors pushed Ross out of office. No reason was given, but Ross was apparently removed because he is a Democrat.

His co-chair on the commission was the Republican who replaced him as the UNC System president: former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. The commission, Ross said, “tried to set out areas where we felt having people representative of North Carolina is important. The university is for everybody.”

Republican state lawmakers say they — and by extension, their appointees — are representative of North Carolina because voters have put them in power.

But Ross said Republicans “didn’t get 100 percent of the vote and they don’t have 100 percent of the legislature.”

Republican legislative leaders opposed the creation of the governor’s commission and ignored its recommendations on how to make the university’s governing boards more representative of the state’s political racial and geographic diversity.

“I’m disappointed there wasn’t more willingness to engage and discuss. [The commission] was a bipartisan group,” Ross said. “Most of us realized it wasn’t going to be embraced with open arms by the legislature, but we did hope they would pay some attention to it.”

Ultimately, the insular political makeup of UNC’s governing boards makes its purported commitments to ideological diversity appear hollow and hypocritical. But it also hurts the strength of the entire UNC System and the institutions that are a part of it.

“I worry that a lack of diversity on these boards is reducing the possibility of true game-changing academic initiatives,” Marsicano, the Davidson professor who co-authored a brief for the Governor’s Commission on the boards’ diversity, said. “Having a diversity of viewpoints allows for a greater ability to maximize the strengths of the university.”

Most critically, though, it jeopardizes the long-held principle that North Carolina’s universities belong to everyone. System leaders say they want more ideological diversity on campus, but without a commitment to diversity within their own ranks, it appears as if the only ideology they really want on campus is their own.