This story originally published online at NC Policy Watch. 

David Crabtree, former long-time reporter and anchor at WRAL, was made CEO of PBS NC Thursday after a unanimous vote by the UNC Board of Governors. Crabtree has served as interim leader of the organization for the past five months.

The board broke precedent in hiring Crabtree, who will make $275,000 per year in his new role, by not conducting a national candidate search. Such a search isn’t required for the organization’s top executive—but it has been standard protocol for decades.

UNC System President Peter Hans told the board Thursday he was glad he could lure Crabtree away from WRAL to take on the interim role in April. The original plan was to do a national search for candidates, but Hans said over the last few months he rethought that.

“As he settled into the role I began to ask myself, ‘Why in the world would we conduct a search for a new CEO and general manager when we have a seasoned manager and pro right here?” Hans said.

The shift in process has some people within PBS NC and state government asking questions.

State Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) served on the UNC Board of Governors for nearly a decade, from 2001-2010. She is also a member of the state’s Education/Higher Education committee. Asked about the manner in which Crabtree was hired this week, Robinson said the step away from precedent is troubling.

“We’ve traditionally done a national search for a position that important to make sure we choose someone who can compete nationally and to be sure that we hire the very best that the market has to offer,” Robinson said. “You can’t get the best candidate if you don’t compare them to other applicants.”

“With the reputation that PBS NC has, I would imagine you would have a lot of people all across the nation interested in that position,” Robinson said.

PBS NC, the four-channel public television network reaching all 100 of North Carolina counties was, until last year, known as UNC-TV. Reaching more than 14 million viewers in North Carolina and surrounding states, is the third-largest PBS member station in the nation and has an annual budget of about $30 million.

According to state statute, the UNC System president recommends the station’s CEO, and the UNC Board of Governors then votes on that person. But for the past 30 years, the system has held national searches for the position. Taking that step reduced the likelihood of cronyism or political patronage in executive level hires, Robinson said.

“You’re looking for the best possible hire that you can get anywhere,” Robinson said. “This shouldn’t be a situation where you just hire someone you know, that you’re comfortable with, maybe someone you are friendly with and who has a good reputation. That’s not how this process should work.”

Crabtree himself did not return calls or emails from Policy Watch this week. Doug Strasnick, his chief of staff, said he was out of town at a public media conference. Crabtree did not attend Thursday’s board of governors meeting.

Jack Clayton, chair of the PBS NC board of trustees did not return calls or emails. UNC System staff said Hans was unavailable to comment on the process until Thursday, after the vote had been taken. Several members of the UNC board of governors declined to comment, citing concerns about personnel privacy.

“There is a reason that there’s been a national search for these positions for so long,” Robinson said. “There’s a history there.”

In the early 1990s, the system held a national search that found Tom Howe, then a Seattle public television executive. Howe took the helm of the organization in 1992 and held it for more than 20 years, helping to elevate and transform the organization. He retired in 2014.

Since then, turnover has been more frequent, with interim CEOs often filling in—something Hans referenced Thursday in talking about Crabtree’s long, deep ties to the community providing stability in the role.

Associate General Manager Gail Zimmermann was named interim director while a national search was launched to find Howe’s permanent replacement. That search produced Brian Sickora, who held the position from 2016 to 2019, when he departed to become an executive with a cannabis company.

The UNC System held another national search for a new leader in 2019, ultimately choosing UNC School of the Arts Chancellor Lindsay Bierman. In February of this year, Bierman announced he was stepping down to become director and CEO of the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The UNC System tapped Crabtree as interim leader starting in March.

PBS NC employees say they were told the traditional national search would be held for a new, permanent leader. But last month, at an all-staff meeting, they were told that the search had been canceled. Last week, the PBS NC Board of Trustees publicly announced it would suggest Crabtree be hired permanently for the job.

A question of values

Policy Watch spoke to more than a dozen PBS NC employees over the last week, many of them long-serving and high-ranking. Each asked not to be named in this story as they feared political repercussions for questioning the process at a time of change for the organization.

Several PBS NC employees told Policy Watch the announcement of Crabtree as CEO without a search surprised and frustrated them. Some within the organization had hoped their organization’s new top-leader would be chosen from within from existing staff, or from among the many up-and-coming executives already working at high levels in public television.

Crabtree has been an anchor and reporter for more than 30 years, much of it at commercial station WRAL, where he has been a fixture since 1994. He’s won 16 Emmy awards and was named Reporter of the Year four times by the Radio Television News Directors Association and Anchor of the Year from the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters.

With his strong ties to North Carolina, Board of Governors members say he will provide stability and continuity, which have difficult to maintain because of the many recent leadership transitions.

On Thursday Hans told the board Crabtree’s high profile would particularly valuable in fundraising for PBS NC.

But at a large nonprofit struggling to diversify, especially among its leadership, some observers said that the decision not to hold a competitive application process looks bad.

“When I think of the people I know at PBS who are African Americans, there is a lack of diversity – especially among the leadership,” Robinson said. “It’s time for that to change and it’s been time, but how do you have the opportunity for that if the people who are put in these positions don’t even have to compete with a more diverse pool of candidates? If they’re not even compared with what is out there?”

This week, PBS NC employees pointed Policy Watch to the organization’s own statement on its commitment to increasing diversity.

“PBS North Carolina is committed to using its power as a public media force to promote equity and mitigate bias on a systemic level,” the statement reads. “We do this by designing and creating content that is reflective of and accessible to the diverse communities we serve and by developing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) initiatives and resources with and for our employees.”

“Internally, PBS North Carolina will develop and implement institutional changes that prioritize racial equity and inclusion for all,” the statement reads. “We will probe our unconscious biases, raise awareness of systemic bias and craft policies that will lead to lasting behavioral changes. To build a stronger PBS North Carolina, we must ensure that all employees can fully contribute their unique skills and perspectives in a safe and supportive environment.”

Robinson said she wonders how the way the organization’s newest CEO is being hired squares with that stated commitment.

“Are they living those values?” Robinson said. “That’s the question.”

Hans said he believes there is diversity in leadership at PBS NC and that Crabtree is committed to the diversity mission.

“He’s met with every employee over there and is conducting town halls,” Hans said.

Hans said he intends to attend one such a town hall with employees soon.

In the end, Hans said, he – along with the board of trustees and the board of governors – was satisfied they had the organization’s next leader without looking at any other applicants.

“Searches are expensive, they are time consuming, they cause a great deal of uncertainty,” Hans said. “If you have the right leader in place—which I’m confident we do—I think the better move for PBS NC was to move forward.”

An exception to the rule?

Several UNC board of governors members defended their break with precedent in interviews with Policy Watch this week, albeit without getting into specifics about Crabtree.

With a well-qualified leader in place as interim, several board of governors members told Policy Watch, a national search can be an unnecessary waste of time and money. That doesn’t necessarily mean eschewing searches would become the new norm in hiring, they said.

“In certain circumstances, national searches have a great value,” said Randy Ramsey, chairman of the board of governors. “I also believe a lot in succession planning and homegrown people. I think that one of the things we as a system have been traditionally weak at is grooming individuals to be future leaders.”

“When we look around our system, including hospitals, there are well over 60,000 people,” Ramsey said. “Sixty thousand North Carolinians who love North Carolina and love the university system. So, I personally would like us to see more and more of that.”

Though Crabtree comes from outside the university system, in recent years, the board has leaned toward candidates from within the system, as well as those from North Carolina.

Ramsey pointed to the last national search for UNC System president, which ultimately led to Peter Hans, then president of the NC Community College System, being elevated to system president.

Ramsey said that “on occasion you find the right people, who are the right fit, and if they are the right fit and they do share the same values of higher education in our state, and longterm values, then I think that’s okay.”

“I do believe occasionally people can find or identify talent that would be an excellent fit for any organization we’re responsible for,” Ramsey said. “And I think it’s quite appropriate.”

Ramsey said he understands the lack of the traditional search could lead some to have diversity concerns. Yet he believes the system can and does hire with an eye to diversity across the institutions for which his board is responsible.

Ramsey said he doesn’t know if a wider search actually leads to more diversity when hiring. “I don’t really have an opinion on that,” he said.

Board member Jim Holmes said he also believes in promoting from within North Carolina rather than going outside. He also trusts Hans to make the right recommendation to the board, he said.

“If Peter thinks he’s got the right guy, we’ve got the right guy,” Holmes said. “I say to Peter the same thing I say to people I supervise in my firm—it’s your decision and I’ll hold you accountable.”

In promoting someone who is well known and has already been working as interim leader of PBS NC, Holmes said, the board has “a known commodity.”

“You know how you know you have the right person?” Holmes said. “They do a great job. If they don’t do a great job, you address that.”

The board has given Hans extraordinary latitude in hiring. That includes making a controversial change to the chancellor selection process that placed more power with the system president. So far, Holmes said, the board’s trust in Hans has been justified. It recently approved an incentive bonus of more than $451,000.

Board member David Powers, who serves as board liaison to PBS NC, called Crabtree “an extraordinarily qualified candidate.”

“He has the president’s trust,” Powers said. “He has the community’s trust—he’s very well liked in the community around the Triangle, very well known.”

That’s not the case with every candidate, Powers said. There may be instances in which a national search is needed, he said, but in this case there wasn’t a need to “overthink it.”

The trustees are very satisfied with the job Crabtree has done as interim, Powers said. Comparing him to a larger pool of candidates from around the country didn’t seem necessary.

“You can find a better candidate than anybody, if you look hard enough,” Powers said.

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