UNC’s Cunningham was ready to talk athletics budget with trustees. Here’s why he didn’t

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UNC athletics director Bubba Cunningham returned from the ACC’s annual spring meeting in Florida prepared to address the UNC Board of Trustees’ concerns.

But mere minutes after the board motioned to go into a closed session on Thursday — a session in which Chairman John Preyer previously indicated they would discuss the athletics budget — the athletics director exited the building.

So, when did Cunningham find out the board was not going to discuss the athletics budget, as previously planned?

“Probably this morning,” he said.

Cunningham then turned and walked out. He may have a local intellectual property lawyer to thank for his early departure.

In a complaint filed on Wednesday in Orange County Superior Court, the board was accused of violating North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law and Public Records Act. It came after Preyer suggested during a special meeting on Monday that the board should discuss the school’s athletic budget in closed session.

The complaint was filed by attorney David McKenzie against Preyer and all other trustees, and also referenced a November 2023 closed session on UNC Athletics’ finances, which allegedly violated the open meetings law.

On Thursday afternoon, Orange County Superior Court Judge Alyson Grine issued a Temporary Restraining Order stopping the board “from going into closed session to discuss UNC Athletics’ financials, budgeting, deficit, or ongoing or future conference alignment and related strategic planning.”

The order also called for a hearing on Monday to determine if further action is needed to keep the board in compliance with open meetings laws.

On Thursday morning, prior to the judge’s ruling, Preyer clarified the board’s intent.

“I want to clarify comments made [on Monday] that made a suggestion that we planned a separate budget presentation for athletics in an upcoming closed session,” Preyer said Thursday, reading a prepared statement. “We do not schedule budget presentations and discussions for closed session. And we did not do that this week.”

The board proceeded with its closed session on Thursday, focusing on other agenda items: a report of the External Affairs Committee, a report of the University Affairs Committee, a campus security update and legal update.

According to the docket and comments made by trustees, athletics budgeting wasn’t discussed.

This comes after scathing complaints by university trustees were directed toward Cunningham and his department on Monday, amid a time of heightened economic anxiety throughout college athletics and the ACC.

The Board of Trustees approved an internal university audit of the UNC athletics department on Monday and criticized Cunningham for delays in providing financial information. One trustee spoke of “significant frustration that we have not been able to get the information that we need from the athletics department.”

Tumultuous times for athletics

Speaking to the media on Thursday, Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts emphasized that trustees have a right to the information.

“It’s obviously a time of significant upheaval in college athletics,” he said. “I’d be very surprised if there was any mismanagement, let alone malfeasance in our athletics department.”

That’s not exactly what the board indicated on Monday.

Jennifer Halsey Evans, perhaps the most outspoken trustee, said the athletics department faced a $17 million deficit in its current-year projections and a cumulative deficit of $100 million in the coming years with “no plan to address that, to mitigate that.”

“So I don’t want anyone to think we’re talking in code,” she said on Monday. “There are real issues here, a real concern that one of our most valuable assets, and something that really generates revenue, is not being managed properly.”

Evans refused to speak to the N&O after the Thursday board meeting.

Roberts supports Cunningham

Roberts, on the other hand, said the athletics department is “audited routinely” and has “been audited 10 times in the last five years” in addition to yearly NCAA audits.

“I would just add that our athletic director (Cunningham) is one of the most senior, well respected, well regarded, admired athletic directors in the country,” Roberts said. “He has broad respect from his peers. And we don’t have a more capable, more experienced, more talented, senior administrator here at Carolina.”

Trustee Ralph Meekins, speaking to the media on Thursday, echoed Roberts’ sentiment.

“Some of the comments that were made (on Monday), I think might have been made for different purposes,” he said.

Meekins came to Cunningham’s defense on Monday, highlighting his leadership through the pandemic and availability to meet with trustees.

Notably, Meekins was the only trustee who voted against the board’s proposal to have the athletic department audited. Explaining his decision on Thursday, he emphasized the changing landscape of college athletics — NIL and various active lawsuits — but said Cunningham is “gonna figure it out.”

“There’s no mismanagement,” Meekins said.

The rest of the board, however, approved the audit and will direct Dean Weber, UNC’s Chief Audit Officer, to review the athletics department. At this point, it’s unclear when the board will reconvene to discuss the budget with Cunningham.

Open meetings law complaint

Wednesday’s legal complaint against the board included an allegation of a previous open meetings law violation last year.

“Defendants have repeatedly and blatantly violated these statutes, as evidenced by their actions during the closed session in November 2023 and their plans for a closed session on May 16, 2024,” McKenzie wrote in the complaint.

Evans referenced the November closed session during the special meeting on Monday, saying issues of UNC Athletics’ financial condition were discussed in this closed session. The complaint also highlights how Evans later reminded Meekins to be “thoughtful,” about his questions regarding UNC Athletics’ budgeting and financials on Monday.

“We were in closed session, so let’s be thoughtful about how we characterize it,” she said.