CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — The chairman of the North Carolina university system's Board of Governors asked members Friday to unite behind the system's president amid ongoing disagreements among leadership.
In his first meeting as chairman of the board, Harry Smith urged members at the mid-year meeting to set aside political differences and support President Margaret Spellings.
"It is my hope this board will unite behind Margaret Spellings, give her a voice, and let her be heard," Smith said before going into a closed session. "She has great experience, knowledge, and it is my hope we recognize that."
Spellings is less than halfway through her five-year contract as university system president. The former education secretary for President George W. Bush took over as head of the 17-campus system in March 2016. She was selected after the Republican-dominated university board forced out a predecessor named when Democrats had greater influence.
Smith told reporters at a press conference after the board meeting that his call for members to back Spellings was not related to any single issue, but it comes after several weeks of controversy on the board.
Earlier this month, the board failed to approve Spellings' nominee for Western Carolina University chancellor, who withdrew because of direct interference from a board member, the Raleigh News & Observer reported Friday. In a UNC board meeting Thursday, information emerged that board member Tom Fetzer had personally involved himself in the vetting process for the nominee, a move other members said was outside the authority of the body, the newspaper reported.
Spellings also has faced criticism for her handling of protests of a Confederate monument on the flagship Chapel Hill campus. She was reproached for a decision last year to request added security in the wake of deadly racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. A majority of board members signed a letter criticizing "weakness" instead of a display of strength as protesters planned a huge demonstration to demand the removal of a Confederate soldier statue from a central spot on campus.
Spellings and former governing board chairman Louis Bissette wrote to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper seeking state help with security because campus police feared a potentially dangerous confrontation.
Spellings called leadership conflicts growing pains, telling reporters that disagreements among leadership are part of an ongoing process.
"I think we've all learned a few things over the past couple of weeks, and I look forward to continuing the conversation," she said.
Associated Press writer Emery Dalesio contributed to this report.