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New UNC board appointments prompt diversity concerns

UNC System Board of Governors in conference room
Liz Schlemmer
The UNC Board of Governors' 24 members are appointed by the legislature.

N.C. Senate Republicans are facing criticism for their latest appointments to the UNC Board of Governors.

The Senate voted this week to re-appoint four current members of the governing board for the state’s public university system. They also added two new members: former Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown of Jacksonville and former New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White.

All six are men, and five of them are white. Only one is a Democrat: former state Sen. Joel Ford of Charlotte. He is Black. The other re-appointments are former Reynolds American executive Mark Holton, former auto parts CEO Temple Sloan and Fayetteville attorney Michael Williford.

Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, said she’d like to see more diversity. Only four of the current 24 members are minorities.

“Every year, I’ve tried to get somebody on, that my Republican colleagues wouldn’t vote for, so I finally stopped trying to do that," Robinson said, adding that she thinks the lack of diversity does a disservice to the universities' students. "Because the students are our product, and they’re important, so they should have people on that board that represent them, whether they’re poor, whether they’re minority, whether they’re women or men."

Senate Leader Phil Berger defended his party’s picks.

“I think we’ve selected quality people that are interested in the state, interested in the university, and I feel like it was a good slate.”

Asked about whether diversity should be a bigger consideration, Berger said "we really don’t ask folks and check boxes like that."

A bipartisan commission created by Gov. Roy Cooper last year is considering possible changes to the process. The commission is led by former UNC System Presidents Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings.

It's holding a series of public hearings around the state to gather input before making recommendations to lawmakers by June. The next hearing is set for March 20 in Greenville.

Robinson, who's serving on the commission, says a common sentiment in the hearings is that the party in the minority in the legislature ought to appoint some seats. "That board should represent the people of the state," she said.

Berger noted that the current system was created when Democrats controlled the legislature. He brought up another source of debate about board members: whether registered lobbyists should be appointed.

Sen. Jim Perry, R-Lenoir, recently filed a bill that would ban lobbyists and their spouses from serving. Berger said Wednesday that he's not sure legislation is needed, but he stressed that none of the six people elected this week in the Senate are lobbyists.

One of the new additions will replace former Sen. Thom Goolsby, who has worked as a lobbyist while serving on the board.

The House will also elect new members of the UNC Board of Governors soon.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.