BY ALTHA CRAVEY
I’ve been attending UNC Board of Governors’ meetings for about three years. I knew it was important to understand the Board’s increasing willingness to interfere in campus affairs across the state. The Board had already ceased being a bi-partisan Board with equal numbers of Republican and Democratic members, a “gentleman’s agreement” that had been in place for decades in our state.
One of the Board’s many contentious decisions in recent years was the firing of the system president and his replacement with former US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Another recent decision that attracted national attention was the Board’s decision to prohibit the UNC Center for Civil Rights from giving legal advice to marginalized communities in the state. This was a direct attack on civil rights and higher education. Shortly after the Board’s action, two law professors employed by the Center were given pink slips, effective January 2018. These kinds of actions are so troubling that Belle Whelan, of our accrediting organization, advised the Board in July to stop micro-managing and to be more transparent. Instead, many observers suggest the Board is becoming more secretive.
One positive development is that the Board now has a designated public comment session. These began about a year ago in response to boisterous protests. These sessions seem designed to deflect public participation, however. A few members of the Board stay after the full Board’s own meeting to listen to a maximum of fifteen members of the public who are each given a maximum of three minutes. I think it’s important to describe my experience at the last one of these public comment sessions.
I signed up several days in advance in order to speak at the Board’s public comment session. On Friday, November 3, I arrived at 9 am to attend the meeting of the full Board of Governors. In spite of reserving a space in advance, I was locked out of the building along with some community members, graduate students, and even one student government representative (UNCCH). We were told quite firmly that there would be no overflow room with closed circuit streamed today. This was not surprising since we had been locked out—and denied access to the overflow room—during the October meeting.
I went home and came back and we were still locked out of the building, even at a time when quite a few Board members were leaving and getting in their cars. About eight of us had signed up for public comment and a staff member eventually came outside to give us our assigned seat numbers and let us into the designated room. About 5 Board members stayed to listen to our comments that were focused on the “free speech” policy and on the protest at the confederate monument known as Silent Sam. Some speakers mentioned both issues. Joe Killiam at NCPW will report some of this, so watch for his story. Dr. William Sturkey, assistant professor of history at UNCCH, waited outside in the sun with us, but eventually had to leave to do other things so he did not deliver his prepared remarks.
One new development at the Confederate statue (aka Silent Sam) protest is about UNCCH using an undercover cop to infiltrate the protest and pretend to be a community member supporting the sit-in. His “police work” came to light because he responded to the event where a person created a fire at Davie Poplar and he was wearing his UNCCH police uniform. Maya Little, a graduate student in the history department, called out to him using his protester name “Victor,” and he responded that his name was “Hector,” not Victor. Many people involved in the sit-in (including myself) had conversations with Victor so he was apparently collecting information to discredit the protestors and the movement protesting the confederate statue (it is the only one on any of the UNC campuses and it is prominently placed at the entrance of campus). There are two videotape recordings of Hector’s interactions with students yesterday as they challenged him about his two names and his alter-identity. I think this is a concerning development on the UNCCH campus.
Faculty at UNC do not have enough input in key decisions that affect the future of our seventeen campus system. Surely these experiences will resonate with faculty in other places. Our institutions are being redesigned and we are being excluded from the conversations. UNC is a public institution that is subject to open meetings and sunshine laws, yet our Board is disregarding those laws and protocols with absolute impunity. We will not stand for it. It’s time to organize, demand shared governance and protect our public institutions of higher education.
Altha Cravey is the president of the North Carolina State Conference of the AAUP and an associate professor of geography at the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.