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Gov. Cooper announces members of public university governance commission

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  • “It’s clear that leaders across our state, and across the political spectrum, care deeply about our remarkable university system and want these institutions to thrive," Gov. Cooper said.
  • The 15-member commission, co-chaired by former UNC System leaders, will study the appointment methods for the UNC Board of Governors and various boards of trustees around the state.
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Gov. Roy Cooper named members of his newly created commission to study public university governance on Wednesday, Nov. 23, after announcing the initiative at the beginning of the month.

The 15-member commission, co-chaired by former UNC System leaders Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings, will study how the governance of N.C. public universities can be reformed. It will specifically look at the appointment methods for the UNC Board of Governors and various boards of trustees around the state.

“It’s clear that leaders across our state, and across the political spectrum, care deeply about our remarkable university system and want these institutions to thrive,” Cooper said in a Nov. 23 release. “I appreciate the willingness of these talented and committed people to step forward and work together under the leadership of Chairs Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings on a serious, results-oriented review of university governance and I look forward to their recommendations on improving the status of higher education governance in our great state.”

The UNC System is made up of 16 public universities that serve nearly 250,000 students each year. Members of the UNC System Board of Governors, which oversees the entire system, are appointed by the state legislature. The Board of Governors then controls appointments to the individual universities’ boards of trustees, as well as chancellors and presidents.

When Cooper announced the commission on Nov. 1, he spoke of “signs of undue political influence, bureaucratic meddling, and singularity of political thought” among university governance in the state. He also said the people who appoint university leadership don’t reflect North Carolina’s political, racial, and geographic diversity.

Republicans have maintained control of the state legislature, which appoints the Board of Governors, for the last decade.

Any changes to the appointment process of university leaders would have to be approved by the legislature. At the announcement of the commission, Cooper said his goal is to prepare a proposal for consideration by the end of next year’s long session.

This executive order deals with the state’s public university system, not the N.C. Community College System.

Spellings, who was president of the UNC System from 2016 to 2019, noted the power of higher education institutions as sources of innovation and enlightenment in communities.

“Our public universities especially must be places where every person feels welcome, heard, and represented,” she said.

You can read the executive order establishing the commission here.

Members of the commission

  • Co-chairperson Thomas W. Ross, Sr. From Davidson, Ross was the president of the UNC system from 2011 to 2016. He is the former president of the Volcker Alliance and President Emeritus of Davidson College. He previously served as a superior court judge.
  • Co-chairperson Margaret Spellings. Currently President and CEO of Texas 2036, a non-partisan, non-profit research organization, Spellings was president of the system from 2016 to 2019. Before that, she served as the U.S. Secretary of Education and White House Chief Domestic Policy Advisor under President George W. Bush.
  • Rep. John R. Bell IV (R-Greene), member at-large. Bell, from Goldsboro, is serving his fifth term in the North Carolina House of Representatives. Bell has served as House Majority Leader since August 2016.
  • W. Louis Bissette, Jr., member at-large. Bissette, from Asheville, is an attorney at the law firm of McGuire Wood & Bissette in Asheville, where he also served two terms as mayor. He formerly served on the Board of Governors, where he was chairman from 2015 to 2018. He serves on the Board of Trustees of Wake Forest University and UNC Asheville, and he is a former member of the Board of Trustees of Western Carolina University .
  • Dr. Nicole Dobbins, member at-large. Dobbins, from Summerfield, is an Associate Professor of Special Education in the Department of Educator Preparation at North Carolina A&T State University. Her research involves equitable and inclusive educational strategies. She is currently the Vice Chair of the UNC Faculty Assembly and the N.C. A&T State University Faculty Senate. 
  • John Fraley, member at-large. Former Republican Representative Fraley, from Mooresville, served in the North Carolina House of Representatives from 2015 to 2020. He is a current member of the UNC Board of Governors, Board Chair of myFutureNC, and graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill.
  • Isaiah Green, member at-large. A recent graduate of UNC Asheville, Green is the former student member of the UNC System Board of Governors and the former Student Body President at UNC Asheville. He is from Massachusetts.
  • Ann Goodnight, member at-large. Goodnight, from Raleigh, has been an advocate for children and education for more than 25 years. She is a co-founder and Board member of Cary Academy and a trustee of North Carolina State University. She serves as Chair of the Goodnight Educational Foundation, is an active board member for myFutureNC, and serves on the board of directors of the GSK Foundation. She also serves on the boards of the YMCA of the Triangle and the N.C. Science Festival.
  • Dr. Clifford A. Jones, Sr., member at-large. Jones has served as the Senior Pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte since 1982. Jones previously served on the Winston-Salem State University Board of Trustees.
  • Gary Locklear, member at-large. Locklear, of Pembroke, is a retired Superior Court Judge. He is currently working part-time with the Robeson County Attorney’s Office. Locklear has previously served on the UNC Pembroke Board of Trustees.
  • Sen. Gladys A. Robinson (D-Guilford), member at-large. Robinson, from Greensboro, was elected to her seventh term in the North Carolina Senate earlier this month. She is first Vice Chair of the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus. Robinson previously served on the UNC Board of Governors for 10 years and now serves as the North Carolina/South Carolina co-chair of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators Region V and the Governor’s State Health Coordinating Council.
  • Karen A. Popp, member at-large. Popp, from Chapel Hill, is a partner at the global law firm Sidley Austin LLP, where she is an international lawyer. Popp is the former chair of UNC Charlotte’s Board of Trustees and Foundation Board. She was the president of the UNC Law Alumni Association and a founding member of the Higher Education Works Foundation. Popp was the first female student body president in the UNC System, according to the governor’s release. Popp has previously served as a commercial litigator at Sullivan & Cromwell in New York City, Associate White House Counsel to President Clinton, attorney in the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice, and federal prosecutor in New York City.
  • Hon. Cressie Thigpen, Jr., member at-large. Thigpen, from Raleigh, served as a Special Superior Court Judge and on the North Carolina Court of Appeals. He was the first African American president of the North Carolina State Bar in 1999. He is a former chair of the North Carolina Central University Board of Trustees and previously served on the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.
  • John L. Townsend, III, member at-large. A native of Lumberton, Townsend moved to New York in 1982 where he spent his professional career at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette; Goldman Sachs; and Tiger Management. He has served on the Board of Trustees of UNC-Chapel Hill and currently serves as the chair of the UNC Investment Fund, which manages the endowments of UNC-Chapel Hill and other UNC System institutions. Townsend also serves as chair of the current UNC-Chapel Hill Capital Campaign, which will conclude this year.
  • Brad Wilson, member at-large. Wilson, from Raleigh, is CEO Emeritus of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina. He served on the UNC Board of Governors for 16 years and served as Chair of the Board for 4 years. A graduate of Appalachian State University, Wake Forest Law School, and Duke University, he has served as an Executive in Residence at Wake Forest University and NC A&T State University. He also served as an adjunct faculty member at UNC-Chapel Hill. 
Hannah McClellan

Hannah McClellan is an EducationNC reporter covering community colleges, postsecondary access and faith.