Top NC lawmaker rejects Nikole Hannah-Jones’ call for change to UNC board appointments

North Carolina’s House speaker says there’s no need to change how members are appointed to two of the most influential higher education boards in the state, despite journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ call for a change to the inherently political process.

Hannah-Jones was set to teach at UNC-Chapel Hill this year, but after months of controversy over the school’s failure to grant the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist tenure for a teaching position, UNC-CH’s Board of Trustees finally opted to reverse course. The board voted in June to grant Hannah-Jones tenure.

But on Tuesday, Hannah-Jones said she would not be taking the position.

In a statement detailing her decision, the New York Times journalist called on university leaders to advocate for a change to the role of both the trustees, which preside over UNC-CH, and the Board of Governors, which sets policy and influences the priorities of both UNC-CH and North Carolina’s 15 other public universities.

“This requires a change to the way the boards are appointed so that they actually reflect the demographics of the state and the student body, rather than the whims of political power,” Hannah-Jones said.

In response, a spokesperson for House Speaker Tim Moore said Tuesday there’s “no appetite” for changing how those members are appointed.

Moore, a Cleveland County Republican and a UNC alum, has been speaker of the House since 2015. Before he was a House member, he served on the UNC Board of Governors.

Senate leader Phil Berger’s office declined to comment on the matter, but previously said the state legislature has “no role” in faculty hiring decisions.

The Republican-controlled legislature appoints members to the Board of Governors, and both that board and lawmakers select members for the Board of Trustees, whose members do have have a say in hiring decisions.

The state has drawn national ire in recent weeks over its handling of Hannah-Jones’ hiring, and she is not alone in calling for lawmakers to take some of the politics out of higher education. Moore’s statement is an indicator, if any was needed, that lawmakers have no plans to reduce their own influence over the UNC System.

“The UNC Board of Trustees is appointed by the Board of Governors and General Assembly to represent the entire state, not just the wishes of left-wing college towns, students and faculty,” said Moore spokesperson Demi Dowdy. “The current board is composed of accomplished professionals of a variety of backgrounds, and there is no appetite for changing the appointment structure.”

Political influence on UNC

When Democrats controlled North Carolina’s General Assembly, they also exerted influence over the state’s higher education system, as Republicans have done in the last 10 years.

But legislative Republicans have also moved to give themselves more control over higher education in recent years. After Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, won the 2016 election, Republicans rushed to strip the future governor of his ability to appoint Board of Trustees members at individual universities. That legislation was signed into law by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory on his way out of office, just weeks before Cooper’s inauguration.

The legislature, instead of the governor, now appoints four members to the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.

One Senate Republican has proposed some changes to the Board of Governors in the form of legislation this year, however.

Sen. Jim Perry, a Republican from Kinston, proposed a bill that would bar the legislature from appointing lobbyists to the board. If signed into law, the legislation could make the board more independent by reducing lawmakers’ ability to influence higher education in the state by appointing close allies and donors.

The bill, which has several Democratic sponsors, has not advanced since it was introduced in early April — a signal that it might not be passed this year or next.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it at or wherever you get your podcasts.

Under the Dome

On The News & Observer’s Under the Dome podcast, we’re unpacking legislation and issues that matter, keeping you updated on what’s happening in North Carolina politics twice a week on Monday and Friday mornings. Check us out here and sign up for our weekly Under the Dome newsletter for more political news.

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Lucille Sherman is a state politics reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. She previously worked as a national data and investigations reporter for Gannett. Using the secure, encrypted Signal app, you can reach Lucille at 405-471-7979.

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