Former board chair Smith says GOP leader wanted Roper out as UNC System president

·2 min read

Former UNC System Board of Governors Chair Harry Smith says Phil Berger, the powerful leader of the North Carolina Senate, wanted then-interim UNC System President Bill Roper out of the position in 2019. And he wanted Smith to make it happen.

Smith said he was called to GOP headquarters where he and Berger had a “frothy discussion about a time frame” in which Roper was not going to be the interim president, a job the former CEO of UNC Health Care had held for a few months at that point.

“The gist of the conversation is that he needs to go,” Smith said in an interview with The News & Observer.

Berger, through a spokesperson, denied Smith’s claim.

Why Berger wanted Roper out wasn’t discussed, Smith said. And Smith said he didn’t recall what his response was at the time or when exactly the meeting happened. But the majority of the conversation, from his perspective, was centered around a timeline for Roper’s tenure to end, he said.

“They didn’t want him in the job or to be president, that was very obvious,” Smith said.

Roper served as interim president with a team of politically-connected advisors for about a year and a half, leading the system through its initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In June 2020, the board replaced Roper with then-president of the North Carolina Community College System Peter Hans, who was welcomed with bipartisan support from Berger, Gov. Roy Cooper and House Speaker Tim Moore.

Smith first publicly described the meeting with Berger on a BusinessNC podcast Friday in which he claimed one of the main reasons he stepped down from his position as chair was because he got “an edict from Phil Berger to let Bill Roper go.”

“They called me to GOP headquarters and gave me 30 days to get rid of him,” Smith said on the podcast. “And I was like, well I didn’t think that’s how it worked, but that is how it works.”

He called it one of the best-kept secrets in North Carolina.

North Carolina Senate Leader Phil Berger talks about House Bill 324 during a press conference at the Legislative Building Tuesday, August 24, 2021.
North Carolina Senate Leader Phil Berger talks about House Bill 324 during a press conference at the Legislative Building Tuesday, August 24, 2021.

In an email, Berger’s communications advisor, Lauren Horsch, said simply, “That statement is not true.”

When asked about Berger’s response, Smith said “edict” was a poor choice of words, but stood by his statement that he was called to GOP headquarters to meet about getting Roper out of the presidency.

“If they choose to deny that, that’s their choice,” Smith said.

Smith resigned from his post as chairman of the board in September 2019, a few months after the alleged meeting, and was replaced by then-vice chair Randy Ramsey. Smith remained on the board as a regular member, but about a month later he resigned early from that position too.

Ramsey was reelected twice and currently serves as chair of the board.

Staff writer Luciana Perez Uribe Guinassi contributed to this report.