The Man Who Would Be King
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The author of this post is Jesse Saffron.
John Fennebresque's friends and coworkers call him "Czar." That appears to be a fitting nickname, for his imperious exercise of authority was his downfall as chairman of the University of North Carolina system's Board of Governors.
Additionally, his yearlong autocratic control of a supposedly democratic governing body exposed serious flaws in the way the UNC board conducts its business.
Fennebresque, a longtime corporate attorney from Charlotte, resigned from the board last week amid outcry from the public, the legislature, and many of his fellow Governors. The immediate cause was his handling of the system's presidential search, which began earlier this year and ended October 23 with the hiring of Margaret Spellings.
The search began inauspiciously, to say the least. In January, Fennebresque unilaterally forced current UNC system president Tom Ross to step down in early 2016, without first consulting the full board or conducting a performance review.
That decision angered many in the state, particularly faculty members with whom the liberal Ross was popular. Fennebresque's inept performance in a televised press conference announcing the move was painful to watch; he could have simply said that he wanted to move the system in a different direction, but instead got tangled in his own words and further inflamed critics.
After angering many liberals, he then alienated many in his own Republican party by pushing for a policy change that effectively prohibited two-thirds of the board's 32 members from participating in the search. This cut most of the board's small but vocal group of reform-minded conservatives out of the process.
That power grab was strongly denounced. Some board members said it was unfair for an 11-member committee to have such an oversized role in such an important process.
Fennebresque also was criticized for advocating the system's hiring of Isaacson, Miller, a national executive search firm that focuses on increasing "diversity" in higher education and other fields. At a board meeting he refused to answer a question about the search's funding source (the final price tag was over $300,000).
In addition, the "Czar" held private meetings related to the search at McGuireWoods, the Charlotte-based law firm where he works. (Traditionally, board meetings are conducted publicly at the system's General Administration building in Chapel Hill.) And he employed an executive assistant-with no official UNC system affiliation-to help him manage the search process.
Such secretive, extralegal, and strong-arm tactics left a bitter taste in the mouths of many state legislators. It appeared that Fennebresque was flouting the will of the board (a creature of the legislature), restricting access to crucial information, and avoiding transparency.
As a result, the General Assembly passed a bill that, in addition to limiting board members' tenure to three four-year terms, requires the entire board to review at least three final candidates before a final vote for system president is made.
In the weeks leading up to the presidential hire, the bill was in limbo-it didn't become law until October 30, a week after Spellings was hired. That timing issue caused some to speculate that Fennebresque wanted to circumvent the intent of the legislature. The belief was that he had pushed forward "his" candidate without allowing the entire board to fully consider other top applicants.
And that's exactly what happened on October 16, when Fennebresque called a last-minute "emergency" board meeting to discuss a "promising candidate"-Spellings.
Some board members complained about the suddenness of the meeting, saying that their previous business plans precluded them from attending. They also questioned whether it violated public meetings laws. Others argued that Fennebresque was disregarding the pending legislation. Several board members called for his resignation.
"You are doing a grave disservice to the University and your candidate by moving forward tomorrow," wrote board member and former state senator Thom Goolsby in a letter to Fennebresque. "No matter how qualified, anyone advanced under your chairmanship would be fruit from a poisonous tree."
Ultimately, other candidates were presented to the full board, thereby satisfying, if only superficially, the legislature's intent; none of those candidates appeared in person and discussions about their qualifications were brief.
The only candidate to appear in person was Spellings. Furthermore, Spellings and Fennebresque later met privately with Governor Pat McCrory. These events suggest that the "interview" and the following week's election were mere formalities.
In other words, Fennebresque got what he wanted and secured his Board of Governors legacy. Although the way he handled the search would cost him the chairmanship, he was able to dictate the thing that's perhaps most attractive about serving on the board, politically speaking: the selection of the system president.
Unfortunately, Fennebresque's heavy-handed approach temporarily damaged the UNC system. It also did a disservice to Spellings, who will begin her presidency next March amid serious doubts about her selection. She's already viewed by many university stakeholders as a purely political hire and byproduct of a highly corrupt search process.
Fennebresque's mishandling of the presidential search was no surprise to those paying attention to higher education in North Carolina. After Fennebresque assumed the chairmanship in fall 2014, he immediately showed signs of being both power-hungry and a cheerleader for the state's higher education establishment.
Especially telling was his treatment of fellow Governors. For instance, one of his first acts as chairman was to require board members to seek his approval if they wanted to request information from the system's General Administration.
He also politicized committee appointments. Board member Marty Kotis told the Carolina Journal last October that Fennebresque's appointments often backed the interests of the university administration, not taxpayers or student groups. He said Fennebresque may have removed him from the budget committee for asking tough questions and demanding greater financial transparency.
These and other events of the past year should serve as a learning lesson, albeit a painful one. Fennebresque's controversial stint as board chairman raised key issues that state policymakers-and the public-must address.
One is the "pay to play" nature of Board of Governors appointments. For example, since 2007, John Fennebresque donated more than $260,000 to prominent state politicians. (Other board members have, collectively, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars.) It is hard to imagine that his contributions had nothing to do with his elevation to the Board of Governors chair.
This system often results in the appointment of disengaged board members seeking sinecures and who, in the main (there are a few exceptions), vote time and time again in favor of harmful policies promoted by university officials and system administrators.
The state legislature should rethink how it makes UNC Board of Governors appointments. Legislators need to be made aware that board membership requires more than a ready smile and lots of "team spirit." Rather, it requires a fully informed, engaged individual who understands that our universities need strong public oversight.
Fennebresque's chairmanship also brought to light board rules that inhibit reform-minded members from holding the university system and its member schools accountable.
For instance, current rules allow the board chairman to appoint committee chairs and to create special committees. It may be worthwhile to revisit those rules and determine whether democratization (within the board) of committee appointments might prevent future "czars" from using the board as their political plaything.
Fennebresque also ended a longstanding tradition of introducing new issues via formal presentations in full board meetings and instead shifted them to committee meetings. This kept board members less aware of the full scope of issues facing the system. It also reduced awareness by the media and other watchdogs. The general presentations should be restored.
Other measures could give reformers a fighting chance. Policymakers could:
This should be only the beginning of an ongoing conversation about increasing accountability and restoring integrity in the UNC system. Board members, legislators, the public, and university stakeholders must find ways to both limit the power of over-ambitious appointees such as Fennebresque and empower those who understand that public oversight of the state higher education system is necessary and proper.