Former UNC Leaders Map a Path for the Future

Three former leaders of the University of North Carolina shared hope that we can overcome political “chaos” and “shenanigans” and restore sound, positive leadership to the UNC System and to Carolina.

Former system presidents Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings and former UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp addressed the problems – and the potential – in a on February 15, 2024.

With Thorp moderating, Ross and Spellings discussed the 2023 report and recommendations of the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina, which the two of them co-chaired.


  • None of the three leaders voluntarily left their positions here and Ross and Spellings would have liked to stay longer. Their premature departures are evidence of turmoil and leadership “churn” that are hurting UNC and the entire system.
  • There is a perception nationally that “our university is more political than others – and getting more political,” Ross said. He said it’s “not healthy,” for the Board of Governors and boards of trustees to be dominated by one party, as they are today. In the past, he said, the boards set aside partisan politics.
  • Spellings said the UNC system faces two key questions: “Are we organized for success?” And, does our governance structure “reflect the diversity of North Carolina” – gender, racial, ethnic and political diversity?

Center of Higher Education Governance

Ross and Spellings emphasized their commission’s first recommendation: that the UNC Board of Governors “create a new Center of Higher Education Governance to optimize the use of good governance principles in higher education throughout America and to assist the Board of Governors (BOG) and Boards of Trustees (BOTs) in enhancing existing governance practices in North Carolina.”

North Carolina could be a national leader here. No other state has such a center, the panelists said.

Spellings suggested, if the Board of Governors doesn’t establish such a center, it could be created through independent, philanthropic action. We know Duke’s Kenan Center for Ethics has a project, headed by Professor Eric Mlyn on Democracy and Higher Education.  Perhaps this could be a jumping off point for a public/private partnership on this issue? 

The Center would focus on continuously monitoring and improving UNC’s governance system. It would provide training and continuing high-quality education for board members, including a clear understanding of their proper roles and responsibilities.

Ross said the center also could provide a database of qualified, committed people to serve on the Board of Governors and individual campuses’ boards of trustees.

Today’s Governance Problems

Ross said there is “increasing confusion between the Board of Governors and boards of trustees” over their roles and responsibilities. The commission recommended clarifying those.

No other state has as much legislative involvement in appointing university boards, they noted. That results in more political interference. Every other state provides for governors to appoint at least some board members.

Spellings said the commission was concerned by the increasing number of lobbyists on governing boards, because lobbyists have “a vested interest in the good will of the legislature.”

The commission recommended restoring gubernatorial appointments, expanding the sizes of boards, extending board members’ terms and increasing the transparency of board operations.

Both Ross and Spellings emphasized that boards of trustees shouldn’t be “micromanaging” university operations.

Ross said, “I heard more times than I can count that the university should be run like a business. If we look at business, I serve on a publicly traded company board as chair of their nomination and governance committee, and I assure you that it doesn’t happen that we’re telling the CEO who they can hire, and we’re not running the day-to-day business. That’s not our responsibility.”

How the University is Harmed

All three panelists expressed concern about the harm that governance problems are causing the university, making it harder to recruit and retain faculty and administration.

Thorp said turnover at the top – exemplified by the departure of all three of them – creates “chaos” and sacrifices stability and experience.

Spellings said political “shenanigans” keep UNC in the news and that “has implications nationally.” It “chills the talent pool.”

Leading a university “is a tough job on a good day,” she said, adding, “It is distressing when these jobs become a revolving door of talent. This constant chaos does not bode well for the University or for North Carolina.”

Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts

The three panelists each said they have talked with Roberts, offered him their support and are hopeful he will succeed.

Thorp recognized that in today’s world more university leaders may come from outside academia, as does Roberts. That is not necessarily bad, Thorp said, noting that Terry Sanford, former governor of North Carolina, was successful at Duke University.

Ross added that he himself did not come up through academia.

Roberts’ challenge, Spellings said, will be to “keep the meddling and micro-managing at bay.”

Ross said that the risk for leaders like Roberts is, “Will they be allowed to run the institution?”

The Prospect for Change

Ross and Spellings acknowledged that the current General Assembly, with a Republican super-majority, is unlikely to readily adopt the recommendations of a commission established by Democratic Governor Roy Cooper – even though the commission was bipartisan, and Ross is a Democrat and Spellings, a Republican.

“We’re not naïve,” Ross said.

But they praised Governor Cooper for the initiative. They expressed hope that the commission’s work will shape the future of the UNC system.

“We’re playing a long game here,” Spellings said. “Politics is fluid.”

Other Issues

During the Q&A session, the panel also discussed:

  • Handling controversial political issues on campus, including free speech and the need for students and faculty to stay safe.
  • How to keep students’ needs and interests at the forefront.
  • Faculty compensation.
  • Athletics issues. “There’s no solving this,” Spellings quipped.


You can read the report of the Governor’s commission here.

Our Coalition’s Thoughts

One Coalition member put it simply afterward: “I was moved.”

We were impressed and heartened that three former UNC leaders, all of whom were forced to leave early under difficult circumstances, still love the University and North Carolina enough to join the webinar discussion, serve on the Governor’s Commission and keep working for positive change.

We are deeply and sincerely thankful to Ross, Spellings and Thorp for participating and for being open and candid in their discussions. We are grateful for the years of extraordinary service and leadership they all gave to the UNC System and to Carolina.

We were encouraged by the hundreds of people who registered and watched the webinar. They submitted many good questions, far more than could be addressed in an hour and a half.

Above all, we are hopeful for the future.

We have no illusions. Higher education – in North Carolina and across the nation – faces rough seas and harsh headwinds today.

Yet, from the founding of the nation’s first public university here in 1789 throughout our proud history, Carolina has weathered many storms.

If we all join together and work together, we can emerge on the other side of this storm better, stronger and even greater than before.

Tom Ross was president of the UNC System from 2011 to 2016.

Margaret Spelling was system president from 2016 to 2019.

Holden Thorp was chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill from 2008 to 2012.

Exposing the Right-Wing Attack on Diversity – at UNC and Across America

We knew UNC was under attack.

Now we know it’s an attack on universities across the country.

It’s a well-funded, coordinated, nationwide campaign against diversity.

The New York Times has exposed the strategy – and the underlying bigotry – of the campaign, one conceived and carried out by a network of conservative donors, think tanks and political activists.  

Read the full article:

Target: North Carolina

The Times uncovered a trove of documents, including a fundraising proposal that “set a first round of targets, in states including Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.”

The story reported that, in June, the North Carolina legislature “passed a law barring public universities and other agencies from requiring employees to state their opinions on social issues.”

In February, the UNC System Board of Governors prohibited the state’s universities from asking applicants for employment, promotion or academic admission to describe their beliefs on “matters of contemporary political debate or social action.”

Read more about the board’s action:

UNC’s controversial new School of Civic Life and Leadership – which powerful legislators and trustees pushed through without adequate involvement by the faculty – wasn’t mentioned in the article. But it reflects the national campaign’s goal of countering what conservatives claim – falsely – is “left-wing bias” on campus.

Heather Mac Donald

A prominent figure in the Times article is Heather Mac Donald, a critic of affirmative action and anti-discrimination efforts who spoke to the UNC Board of Trustees’ External Affairs Committee in November.

Trustee Ramsey White is the committee chair. Mac Donald was introduced by Doug Monroe, acting president of the UNC Alumni Free Speech Alliance.

The Alliance had hosted Mac Donald the night before, where she delivered a wide-ranging and free-wheeling attack on higher education. (Photo above.)

Mac Donald told the trustees’ committee that affirmative action had led universities to admit unqualified and ill-prepared students – a charge that was immediately challenged by then-Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, one trustee and the student body president.

You can read more about her remarks at UNC and watch the video here:

The Times said emails from Mac Donald and others revealed “unvarnished views on race, sexuality and gender roles.”

That’s putting it mildly.

In one email, Mac Donald said gay men “are much more prone” to extramarital affairs “on the empirical basis of testosterone unchecked by female modesty.”

Last year, she wrote this email about a “curse of feminism”:

“As I was taking my evening power walk in the hood here (upper east side) and seeing all the nannies of color walking school children back to their apartments, it struck me again the bizarreness of females deciding that their comparative advantage is in being an associate in a law firm, say, and thus that they should outsource the once in a lifetime unduplicable unrepeatable experience of raising a unique child to some one else, especially someone from the low IQ 3rd world, while they do the drone work of making partner. The child is evolving so quickly, absorbing so many influences, and yet they would rather absent themselves from its life to show that they are as good as males. such a distribution of labor is allegedly pareto optimal. Another curse of feminism.”

Neither Mac Donald nor the Manhattan Institute, where she works, “replied to emails seeking comment,” the Times said.

Where It Started

The Times said the anti-diversity movement “centered at the Claremont Institute, a California-based think tank with close ties to the Trump movement and to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.”

The group “coalesced roughly three years ago around a sweeping ambition: to strike a killing blow against ‘the leftist social justice revolution’ by eliminating ‘social justice education’ from American schools.

The strategy was to “partner with state think tanks, and with the hundreds of former fellows scattered through conservative institutions and on Capitol Hill,” identify diversity programs and personnel at public universities and then “lobby sympathetic public officials to gut them.”

“Our project will give legislators the knowledge and tools they need to stop funding the suicide of their own country and civilization,” Claremont said in one proposal to a foundation.

In their private emails, the university critics didn’t hide their true feelings:

“(E)ven as they or their allies publicly advocated more academic freedom, some of those involved privately expressed their hope of purging liberal ideas, professors and programming wherever they could. They debated how carefully or quickly to reveal some of their true views — the belief that ‘a healthy society requires patriarchy,’ for example, and their broader opposition to anti-discrimination laws — in essays and articles written for public consumption….

“In candid private conversations, some wrote favorably of laws criminalizing homosexuality, mocked the appearance of a female college student as overly masculine and criticized Peter Thiel, the prominent gay conservative donor, over his sex life.”

Where It Succeeded – and Failed

The anti-diversity campaign has spread to at least a dozen states, the Times said.

  • Florida and Texas passed wide-ranging bans on diversity programs.
  • Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas issued an executive 0order banning “indoctrination and critical race theory in schools.”
  • Oklahoma’s Gov. Kevin Stitt issued an executive order similar to North Carolina’s ban on discussing social issues.

But Governor DeSantis’s presidential campaign failed, and “conservative campaigns against left-wing education began to lose traction in some parts of the country.”

Congress Gets in the Act

The Times reported that the next platform for the anti-diversity campaign will be the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which is chaired byNorth Carolina 5th District U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx.

She says her committee will be “investigating many schools in terms of … where is their focus these days.”

“This is just the beginning,” pledged Representative Elise Stefanik of New York. “Our robust congressional investigation will continue to move forward to expose the rot in our most ‘prestigious’ higher-education institutions and deliver accountability to the American people.”

Fight Back

What can you do?

  • Join our coalition.
  • Share information about what’s happening.
  • Make a financial donation to our Coalition. Help us reach more people.
  • Let UNC’s trustees, Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts, members of the Board of Governors, UNC System President Peter Hans and members of the General Assembly know how you feel.

Together, we can stop the attacks on free speech.

We can combat racism, bigotry and discrimination.

We can protect the values that make Carolina great.