- Associated Press - Friday, November 13, 2015

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) - Governors of North Carolina’s public university system gave in Friday to legislative demands for details of a closed-door meeting that resulted in big pay raises for a dozen top campus executives, but not before debating whether their job was to insulate the institution from politicians.

The University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors voted to release details of the private meeting two weeks ago that approved pay raises of up to 20 percent for chancellors at 12 of the state’s 17 campuses. The board acted after consultants told them the chancellors were underpaid. The raises were retroactive to July 1.

The decision to turn over details of the private meeting, which some board members called contentious, was opposed by Raleigh lawyer Joe Knott. He said he and fellow board members should insulate the universities from politicians who might want to install supporters and donors in decision-making roles. Putting people in those positions that are not qualified could hurt the universities’ excellent reputations.

“I view this request as a continuation of unusual interruption in our business by the political arm of our state government,” Knott said.

Knott said a powerful politician demanded that their candidate become the next president of the 17-campus system. “A person with power” in the Legislature directed former university board chairman John Fennebresque to select that lawmaker’s choice as the next university system president, Knott said. He refused to offer details to back up his allegation.

Former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings got the job last month. Fennebresque resigned days later.

A spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, declined comment. A spokeswoman for House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“We shouldn’t deal in rumor-mongering,” board member Marty Kotis said, urging Knott to produce some evidence of the arm-twisting. “The issue is that we are appointed by the Legislature. We are a body that exists because they have appointed us. They are elected by the people of the state. The people of this state own this university” and deserve to know more about what’s going on.

The big pay raises approved in secret comes during a rocky year for university governors that started with their sudden decision to force out current president Tom Ross, followed by a presidential search largely done in private to keep the candidates confidential, and legislative criticism of that closed-door process.

The board waited until three days after the Oct. 30 meeting, after the big pay raises took effect, to disclose their decisions. On Friday, the board refused to release to the public the same records shared with lawmakers. Governing board vice chairman Louis Bissette said that’s because the records contain confidential personnel details. Salaries of public employees must be disclosed under state law. A summary will be released next week, Bissette said.

The legislative demand comes ahead of a meeting Wednesday where lawmakers will review the board’s recent actions.

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Follow Emery P. Dalesio at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/emery-p-dalesio

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