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At UNC-Chapel Hill, interim chancellor selection attracts growing student opposition

Credit: iStock

by Joe Killian, NC Newsline
April 2, 2024

This story has been updated to include comments that Lee Roberts provided to Newsline subsequent to the original publication deadline.

When students at UNC-Chapel Hill organized a “teach-in” last week on the controversy over Lee Roberts’ January appointment as interim chancellor, they didn’t expect much of a crowd. People were rushing to get things done before a holiday weekend. Much of the promotion had been done on Instagram and old school flyering around campus. State and national politics had been eating up a lot of the available political energy, to say nothing of the Israel/Gaza war.

“We booked a room where the capacity was 50 people,” said Alexander Denza, an organizer with the group TransparUNCy. “We were hoping maybe we’d get 25 or 30 people. But we had about 75 — it was standing room only. And to our surprise, I would say most of them were people we didn’t know, that we’d never met before.”

The group is re-running the event in a larger space Thursday, due to demand from students who couldn’t make the first one or wanted another to which they could bring friends. Their hope: that students who too often go four years without really examining the politics of UNC-Chapel Hill, the UNC System and state government, will become more curious about, as the group’s tagline states, “Who controls your education, how they do it and what they don’t want you to know.”

Roberts’ announcement as interim chancellor came in December, after previous Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz left to become president at Michigan State University. Because it was an interim appointment, UNC System President Peter Hans was able to hand-pick Roberts without a vote or search process. The selection has prompted concerns among faculty, students and alumni.

A graduate of Duke and Georgetown, Roberts had no direct connection to the campus. He also had no previous experience in academic administration. He did, however, have the right political connections. A finance executive and former budget director under Republican Governor Pat McCrory, Roberts had been appointed to the UNC System Board of Governors by the GOP majority in the legislature. He had to step down from the board to take the helm at UNC-Chapel Hill — the second political appointee to go directly from the system’s governing board to a campus leadership position in the last three years.

The search for the university’s next permanent chancellor is now underway. Roberts has repeatedly hedged on the question of whether he will apply. That, along with a new search process that more directly involves Hans and members of the board of governors at every stage, has led many on campus and even some members of the campus board of trustees to conclude Roberts will be selected.

Speaking to Newsline late Tuesday,  Roberts said he hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll be a candidate for the permanent chancellor position.

“I think the search just kicked off and I’ve been here less than three months,” Roberts said. “I want to stress that I have not been promised anything other than the opportunity to work hard as interim chancellor and that’s what I’m doing.”

But he reiterated, as he has in interviews and discussions for months, that there is nothing “sinister or nefarious” about any of his business or political connections. He’s tried to be as open and transparent as he can, he said — be it with with students, the media or groups like the nonprofit Coalition for Carolina, with whom he recently sat down for an extended conversation.

“I serve on a corporate board,” Roberts said of his position on the board of conservative mega-donor and UNC System Board of Governors member Art Pope’s Variety Wholesalers. “That’s been disclosed since I first went onto the board of governors in my financial disclosure statements. I’ve been as open and forthcoming about this and everything else as I know how to be.”

“I reject any suggestion that I or anybody else is hiding anything or that there are any sinister forces at work,” Roberts said. “We’re working hard every day on behalf of the faculty, students and staff to make this the best university it can be.”

Asked whether his deep political connections to former and current GOP lawmakers, lobbyists and operatives and recent status as a political appointee on the board that will vote on the next chancellor are a problem, Roberts said he didn’t think so.

“I obviously don’t speak for the board of governors or the system,” Roberts said. “The board of governors obviously represents a group of people who generally are pretty accomplished people who care a lot about the higher education in North Carolina. And obviously, in other contexts it’s pretty common for people who are on a governing board to step into executive roles in a given organization, either for an interim period of time or a longer period of time and vice-versa.”

That sort of comparison — and the suggestion that government’s relation to academia should perhaps be more like private corporate boards, with fewer of the traditional guardrails seen in higher education — has fueled critics of Roberts and the system’s politically appointed governing boards.

Those political connections, that history, the mechanics of how Roberts went from political appointee to the leader of the UNC System’s flagship campus — all were things about which the students behind TransparUNCy realized that the average student had no idea. Until recently, they didn’t either.

Educating themselves, educating others

The students behind TransparUNCy are undergraduates ranging from first-years to seniors, most coming from other organizing efforts.

Some came from the Affirmative Action Coalition launched before last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision against the consideration of race in admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill and Harvard University. Others were part of UNC-Chapel Hill’s March for Our Lives chapter, working against gun violence. But as they were working on their disparate issues, they came to realize that many politically powerful conservatives involved at the General Assembly level — from current and former elected officials to lobbyists and big-name political funders — were also on the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and the system’s board of governors.

Further research led them to the many political connections, conflicts and controversies that inspired the American Association of University Professors to issue a scathing 38-page report on the UNC System two years ago.

“As we did more research, we realized that there was this history that we began to uncover of decades of a very well organized, well-funded, coordinated effort at the state legislature, the Board of Governors, the Board of Trustees of Chapel Hill, to take over the university basically,” said Toby Posel. “And as we went down this research rabbit hole, started learning more and more, we started connecting more and more dots. We started talking to some faculty and some admin and some people who had been connected to the university for a longer amount of time. And I started to kind of freak out.” Toby Posel (Image: Courtesy of TransparUNCy)

In early January Posel began hosting a series of Instagram videos  entitled “TransparUNCy. The short videos broke down the long history of political moves and connections in the UNC System, from the university budget process and influence of conservative mega-donor and current board of governors member Art Pope to Roberts’ political and financial links to him.

That same month, as their larger effort was taking shape, they published an op-ed in The Daily Tar Heel entitled “UNC deserves better, Lee Roberts Ain’t It.” The piece was signed by a long list of student organizations including March for Our Lives UNC, UNC Affirmative Action Coalition, Carolina Young Democratic Socialists of America, Crips in College, Sunrise Movement UNC and the Campus Y Executive Board.

Seeing some momentum from the Instagram videos and op-eds, the group decided to do something more long-form and real-world, with the hope they could not only educate fellow students but inspire them to join a larger movement. The teach-ins offered that opportunity — and allowed them to arrange for students who came to get Campus Life Experience credit, for which they’re required to attend two on-campus events each semester.

While some students and faculty have taken a “wait and see approach” with Roberts, TransparUNCy’s organizers say it should instead be seen as a crisis point that spurs action.

“Given all we know and have talked about in regards to Lee Roberts, his connections to the far right and also this orchestrated political takeover the last decade, it is the essence of waiting and seeing that has allowed it to get as far as it has,” said Denza. “And to professors again, and especially those who want to wait and see:  they are going after your right to resist, right? They’re going after tenure. Your bosses are praying and hoping that you’ll just wait and see as UNC becomes the next national tragedy.”

Criticism, broader goals

The teach-ins haven’t escaped the attention of political appointees on the campus board of trustees or the board of governors. Samuel Scarborough (Image: Courtesy of TransparUNCy)

“I’ve seen some of what they’re doing and I think some of it is really misinformed and is misinforming others,” said Marty Kotis, current trustee at UNC-Chapel Hill and a former member of the system’s board of governors. “I don’t know how students are getting CLE credit for this and I think that’s something that’s worth looking into. Usually when students get credit it’s for something organized by the faculty or it’s something where at least different sides of an issue are presented, not just a one-sided political thing.”

The student organizers say the move to live events has already paid dividends. On Monday, at the first of two chancellor search committee listening sessions held on campus this week, more than 30 students from the teach-in showed up to ask questions and express concerns about Roberts’ candidacy.

For now, the group is focused on the chancellor search, how it will be conducted and whether the board of governors will ultimately choose one of its recent members as the university’s next leader. A broader goal is to create a larger student movement across the South with universities experiencing the same conservative pressure, the Southern Student Action Coalition.

“For most students, we’re here for four years and we’re trying to graduate on time,” said Samuel Scarborough, one of the group’s organizers. “But I think that’s kind of what they count on, that we’re not paying attention to what’s actually happening with the university we’re going to or with the system. Hopefully we can build something that will continue and can be continued when we’re not on campus anymore, so that students are informed and have their voice heard long-term.”

The next TransparUNCy teach-in event will be held Thursday, April 4 at 5 p.m. in room 3411 of the UNC-Chapel Hill Student Union.

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This story is republished from NC Newsline under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.