You might think the once-in-a-century pandemic jeopardizing our 17-campus University of North Carolina system would focus the minds of those our politicians entrusted with governing it. That a disease threatening the lives of students, staff, and faculty in equal measure would trigger a degree of sobriety and seriousness when it comes to conducting the public’s business.
But you would be very, very wrong.
The past month has confirmed that the UNC System Office and its Board of Governors continue to play games with taxpayers’ money and students’ educations, even in the COVID-19 era. Consider three burgeoning scandals to illustrate the point.
Last month, ousted East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton—a different guy from the other ousted East Carolina Chancellor who came after him—filed a defamation lawsuit against the UNC System, former BOG Chairman Harry Smith, attorney Peter Romary, and others. Staton claims Romary, working for a company called QVerity—which in turn was working for Smith, who in turn was working for UNC—went out of his way to badmouth Staton to the presidential search committee of a Texas university. Staton was a shoo-in for the job, he insists, and only missed out because of an email from “John Q. Public at ECU” with a lengthy document attached known as “the Dossier” (seriously).
The lawsuit seems tailor-made for media attention but little else. For example, North Carolina has a one-year statute of limitations on defamation claims, yet all of the BOG defendants except Smith were sued after that deadline had passed. Staton claims “the Dossier” that so damaged his prospects was written by Romary, but ECU’s student newspaper got its hands on an affidavit from a former ECU professor claiming she compiled it years ago. The “email” from “John Q. Public at ECU” turned out not to be an email at all, as a FOIA request to the Texas university for the electronic correspondence netted instead a physical envelope mailed out of an Asheville post office. And I already disclosed in my column back in May that “John Q. Public” is a former client of mine who is not Peter Romary.
With Staton’s lawsuit now “in the wild” and naming several BOG members as defendants, sources now contend Staton lied about his salary and credentials as part of the application process that made him ECU’s chancellor in the first place. It will be interesting to see what other skeletons tumble out of the closet as the lawsuit moves forward.
Not to be outdone in bizarre legal maneuvers, BOG Chairman Randy Ramsey—the same guy who misrepresented his academic credentials for years—tried to convince the board to misrepresent the tenure of Interim President Bill Roper. Ramsey asked the Board to remove the “interim” title, making Roper a full President for a week. Board member Marty Kotis reportedly made the motion at Ramsey’s urging, only to then withdraw it, also at Ramsey’s urging, when opposition became apparent. The BOG then took a “straw poll” on the idea, which failed decisively.
This is not the sort of thing that can lawfully be considered in a closed session; North Carolina’s Open Meetings Act requires closed session items to be disclosed to the public in advance and requires all votes (including “straw polls”) to be done in open sessions. But the idea that Ramsey and Kotis would even propose this sort of nonsense as a parting gift to the interim president who gave us #SilentSham is astonishing.
Then we get to the new president himself, Peter Hans. When it leaked out of the NC General Assembly that Hans was going to be the new UNC system president, it also leaked that current Speaker of the House Tim Moore would be made ECU Chancellor as part of the deal. The speaker’s office tut-tutted the idea since it would suggest the speaker knew Republicans might lose the House majority and he would no longer be speaker. And those who held Hans in high regard—myself included, at the time—had a hard time believing he would sully himself by striking that sort of deal in the first place.
Yet at the very same BOG meeting, the board got to review a brand-new revision to the university’s policies on chancellor searches. The policy would allow the UNC President to designate two people as automatic finalists for any vacant chancellorship, and those finalists would be included among the list of candidates a campus’s board of trustees sends back to the UNC president for final selection. It completely eliminates the vetting process for any politician of the president’s choosing.
It is comically bad governance in normal times. Against the backdrop of the House speaker being guaranteed a chancellorship in exchange for Hans’s ascension as President, it should be downright criminal. The board is slated to vote on the policy change at its September meeting.
Many of us hoped those entrusted with running the UNC system would get their acts together after their #SilentSham deal exploded and the coronavirus took its place. That optimism appears to have been misguided. We’ll see in the months ahead just how badly we were wrong.
T. GREG DOUCETTE is a local attorney, criminal justice reform advocate, and host of the podcast #Fsck ’Em All. He continues to be a pain in the UNC System’s ass. Follow him on Twitter. Comment on this column at email@example.com.
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