On the day the UNC Board of Governors overwhelmingly voted to eliminate its DEI policy, dozens of students drove to Raleigh to watch the decision in-person.

Some came from neighboring Triangle universities like North Carolina State and UNC-Chapel Hill. Others made hours-long treks from universities on opposite ends of the state, like UNC Pembroke and UNC Asheville.

The students arrived around 8 a.m. — two hours before the meeting was scheduled to start — to hold a rally in support of DEI initiatives and to ensure they’d be able to watch the board’s decision.

Nathaniel Dibble, a student and member of the NC State Chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America gives a speech ahead of the UNC Board of Governors vote.
Nathaniel Dibble, a student and member of the NC State Chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America gives a speech ahead of the UNC Board of Governors vote. (Photo: Brianna Atkinson/WUNC)

But UNC System officials turned most of them away.

“Five people,” said Alexander Denza, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior who was number eight on the list. “Five people were let into the meeting and that was it. None of the other students could be let in. We weren’t let into the public meeting, which is absolutely absurd.”

It’s not the only case where a university board meeting has run afoul of the letter or spirit of the state’s open meetings law.

In May, a local attorney filed a lawsuit against UNC-Chapel Hill, following a Board of Trustees meeting where members referenced having a “heated” closed session exchange the previous November about the school’s athletics budget. The board members said they also planned to have “an extended discussion in closed session” about the athletic department’s finances at their May meeting.

A judge granted a temporary restraining order against the board that prevented BOT members from going into that closed session.

According to North Carolina open meetings law, official meetings of public bodies “shall be open to the public, and any person is entitled to attend such a meeting.” The law makes certain exceptions, like allowing meetings to enter closed session to prevent confidential information being shared.

But while the law requires meetings to be open to the public, it doesn’t delegate how.

Amanda Martin is a law professor at Duke University and general counsel to the N.C. Press Association. She said public bodies may not be required to have space for every member of the public who wants to attend a meeting. For example, a public body isn’t required to let everyone into a meeting if doing so would violate a building’s fire code.

But she explains that the law does require public bodies to have a “reasonable” amount of space for the public and a method to determine who gets in.

“What is reasonable and therefore what is legal might vary from public body to public body,” Martin said. “I would have thought that the Board of Governors would be a public body that would ongoingly have a fair amount of public interest, and therefore we would expect them to choose meeting space that could accommodate the public demand on most occasions.”

Public attendance at UNC Board of Governors meetings vary. Sometimes very few, or zero, members of the general public attend in-person, and the limited seating isn’t a problem. But when controversial decisions like Silent Sam or DEI are on the agenda, those seats fill very quickly.

The UNC System’s public seating protocol is more restrictive than universities it considers peer institutions. At the University of California system, there’s a minimum of 50 public seats at Board of Regents meetings and a separate seating area for the media. People are also allowed to stand in the room’s back row if all of the public seating is taken.

The public wing at The University of California Board of Regents meetings can hold at least 50 members of the public. There's also a separate seating area for the media and attendees are allowed to stand in the room's back row.
The public wing at The University of California Board of Regents meetings can hold at least 50 members of the public. There’s also a separate seating area for the media and attendees are allowed to stand in the room’s back row. (Mikhail Zinshteyn/CalMatters)

Other buildings that house public bodies also have more than five seats reserved for the public. The Raleigh City Council, which holds meetings less than a quarter mile away from the UNC System Office, can seat dozens of people.

The UNC System Office is located at The Dillon, a private 18-story building that includes businesses and apartments. The System has meeting rooms on the 17th and 18th floors, along with an atrium and individual office spaces. All of the floors of the Dillon, except the lobby and parking area, require a keycard to access.

The room where the UNC Board of Governors regularly holds its meetings has about 50 seats outside of those reserved for board members. Once university chancellors, UNC System personnel and other university-related staff fill them, however, there aren’t many spaces left for the public.

“We are the main constituency that they’re making decisions about and yet, we’re not even allowed to go into these meetings.” said Denza, the UNC-Chapel Hill senior. “And they specifically put it in an office building on the 17th floor, that you have to take two elevators and go through a key fob and ride with a security person from the UNC system — that is crazy.”

The 17th floor Board of Governors meeting room on May 23, 2024. The UNC System also has a meeting room on the 18th floor, but it has fewer seats.
The 17th floor Board of Governors meeting room on May 23, 2024. The UNC System also has a meeting room on the 18th floor, but it has fewer seats. (Brianna Atkinson/WUNC)

In 2021, the General Assembly mandated the System office move from its location in Chapel Hill to downtown Raleigh. Several BOG members were upset over the move and cost. In a May 2022 BOG meeting, members voted to give UNC System President Peter Hans the authority to approve a temporary lease.

“If the Board of Governors has decided to spend their money to get high prestige, high profile office space instead of renting space where the public can have meaningful access to their meetings,” said Martin. “Then I think, from a public policy standpoint and a legal standpoint, they are violating the letter and the spirit of the law.”

The UNC System did not make anyone available for an interview to discuss its public meetings policy. In a statement emailed to WUNC, a system spokesperson pointed out that the UNC Board of Governors meetings are publicly available through a live stream, and recordings of full board meetings are posted online.

“While there’s usually more than enough space for typical board and committee meetings, seating can fill up quickly when there is a high-profile item on the agenda,” read the statement. “We’re always looking for ways in which we can accommodate public and media interest given the space we have available.”

Martin said while livestreams are far better than no one being allowed in the room at all, it should only serve as an accommodation for excess interest in a meeting where reasonable public access has already been provided.

She said a public body like the BOG could determine what their reasonable access is by conducting a study on meeting attendance, instead of just randomly choosing a number of seats.

“Maybe on one month’s meeting (the BOG) has empty seats and on some other month’s meeting (the BOG) has people in the hallway who want to come in and don’t have space —but they’ve at least come from a rational viewpoint to say how much space should we provide,” Martin said. “Some arbitrary ‘let’s have five seats’ doesn’t seem to be either rational or compliant with the open meetings law.”

Samuel Scarborough, a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, said he’d like to see the UNC Board of Governors take it further. He said the board could have engaged with students by bringing them into the office’s atrium space during the meeting on the DEI vote.

The Administration Building, on Jones Street across from the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, will be demolished in 2024 to make way for a new "education campus."
The Administration Building, on Jones Street across from the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, will be demolished in 2024 to make way for a new “education campus.”

“And then after the vote, have conversations with them, have that dialogue,” Scarborough said. “They’re creating a new school of civic life and leadership where they want us to be leaders, they want us to be civically engaged. That seems like the civic thing to do, that seems like the just thing to do — is making those accommodations.”

The UNC System will eventually move into an “education campus” in downtown Raleigh with the N.C. Community College System and the Department of Public Instruction. The General Assembly has allocated $400 million for the building. It is unknown yet how much public seating will be available in this new complex or how much of a say the UNC System will have in developing it.

The UNC Board of Governors will meet again in-person later this month — the first time since the DEI vote — with another controversial decision on their agenda.

On July 24, the board will review a proposal from UNC Asheville’s chancellor to eliminate several academic departments from the university, including drama, philosophy and religious studies. Several professors have spoken out against Chancellor Kimberly van Noort’s decision and over 1,200 people have written letters advocating for the university’s drama department.

Brianna Atkinson is WUNC's higher education reporter and 2023 Fletcher Fellow, working in partnership with Open Campus.