CHAPEL HILL — The UNC System Board of Governors has an unexpected open position for the North Carolina General Assembly to fill. It's one that can either further widen the disparities between the leaders of North Carolina's 16 public universities and the students they serve or narrow the gap.
Darrell Allison abruptly resigned from the board last week for "personal reasons." He was one of three voting Black members of the board and the chair of the Racial Equity Task Force and the Committee on Historically Minority-Serving Institutions.
Allison said it was a "high honor" to serve on the board in his resignation letter sent to N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger on Sept. 23.
"And while I am most confident that our UNC System will find its way through the many challenges it currently faces, it must do so without my continued service on this board," Allison wrote.
He also mentioned his roots at North Carolina Central University and the work that the he's done, particularly in his leadership roles.
"... My work on this prestigious Board has allowed me to work hard in supporting and advocating for many of our historically minority-serving institutions, and our other smaller institutions which comprise our System with genuine knowledge of need and concern," Allison wrote.
Allison, who's been on the board since 2017, is a senior staff member at the American Federation For Children. The national group works to expand school choice programs and was once led by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, The News & Observer previously reported.
Allison did not return a phone call Friday morning seeking more details about his resignation.
Lack of diversity on the board
Allison's departure highlights the lack of racial diversity of UNC System leaders, who hold the power to make decisions and set policy at the state's public universities. Those leaders do not reflect the demographics of North Carolina college students or residents, the News & Observer previously reported.
There are now 18 men who can vote as members of board. All but one are white. Five women serve on the board as voting members.
The current board members have also been politically appointed by the Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly. All 170 seats in the North Carolina House of Representatives and state Senate are up for election in November.
In the last year, the four openings have all been filled by men.
Dwight Stone filled the spot left by former Board Chair Harry Smith, who suddenly resigned last September. Reggie Holley replaced state Sen. Rob Bryan (R-Mecklenburg) in October. Jimmy Clark replaced former Raleigh Mayor and N.C. Republican Party leader Tom Fetzer, who stepped down in May. Fetzer was a spirited and often controversial board member who said he needed to focus on his family amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The most recent addition to the board is conservative businessman and political donor Art Pope, who was a selected by the N.C. Senate despite some push-back and an online petition. Pope replaced former Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican who resigned from the UNC board in June.
The N.C. Senate, which appoints board members, is not back in regular session until next year and cannot fill the position until then, according to Berger spokesperson Pat Ryan.
In a statement, Berger said his philosophy on choosing board members is to select people who "are capable of making sound decisions and who agree that affordability in education is a top priority."
He said they expect those individuals to "think and act for themselves."
Working on racial equity
Board Chairman Randy Ramsey thanked Allison for his "valued and thoughtful service" on the board and said he was a "passionate advocate" for public higher education and the system.
In a statement, he said board member Reggie Holley will "continue to advance the important work of the Racial Equity Task Force" and lead the HMSI committee.
The task force was established in June to "examine the legacy of race and racism in North Carolina's public higher education system." It came on the heels of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that condemned police brutality following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Its focus is on equity in recruiting, hiring and promoting employees, equity in the recruitment of and academic experience for students and keeping campuses safe and inclusive, according to the system.
The system recently launched a survey for faculty, staff and students and will host virtual listening sessions to help guide the task force's work. They've also been consulting with national experts, which will inform the group's recommendations to Ramsey and UNC System President Peter Hans.
"We have spent the last few months learning from students, faculty, staff, listening to ideas that will help us improve the UNC System," Allison said in a statement in September. "As we continue examining our policies and asking tough questions, I know we'll come away with some excellent ideas for strengthening our System."