Campus Profile: Shannon Brien

Shannon Brien, a senior from Henniker, New Hampshire, is a student leader involved in the UNC BoG Democracy Coalition. This group advocates for transparency between the North Carolina Board of Governors and the students they “represent.” Recently, the coalition held a statewide walkout to protest the new Board of Governors President, Margaret Spellings.

Name: Shannon Brien

Year: Senior

Age: 23

Hometown: Henniker, NH

Major: History and Chinese

Minor: Women’s Studies

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Shannon (center) and others at BoG member protesting 

HC: What is the UNC BoG Democracy Coalition?

SB: We are a coalition of students who work with faculty, staff, and the community to raise awareness and push for change on the UNC Board of Governors. The BoG is the governing body of all 17 public schools in the UNC System and although they direct the policy for all of our campuses, there is little public awareness about what they actually do. They often meet without properly giving public notice, and their decisions clearly reflect the partisan bias of our General Assembly, which appoints the Board members. There is one non-voting student member on the Board and no faculty or staff representation, so it is very difficult for the University’s constitution. The Coalition is pushing for major reforms within the structure of the BoG to ensure that the policies coming from the Board are actually reflective of what students, faculty, and staff need for our schools. For example, we want to see at least a dozen voting seats on the Board reserved for student representatives. Smaller changes, like requiring the Board members to conduct BoG business with official UNC emails, will make it easier for the public and press to keep track of the Board’s actions by making Freedom of Information Act requests more easily attainable. We try to represent the concerns of students at UNC Chapel Hill, but we work with groups across all campuses representing students, faculty, and staff to organize around this common cause.

HC: What major projects (campus events, protests, etc.) have you all completed this school year?

SB: This past year we have mainly focused on the secretive nature in which our new System President, Margaret Spellings, was appointed to her position. Last year, the Board abruptly fired our previous System President, Tom Ross, for no particular reason, and as of now they have not explained how they reached this decision to let him go. This is particularly bizarre because a majority of Board members expressed appreciation for Ross and seemed sad to see him go, yet they themselves were the ones who fired him. Most people have speculated that Ross’ liberal politics angered the Board and the General Assembly, so they forced him out for that reason and not based on his performance as President.

Spellings has a controversial record, which many people see as making her unqualified to be System President. She was Secretary of Education under George W. Bush and implemented No Child Left Behind, now considered a policy failure. She sat on the board of Apollo Corp, which oversees University of Phoenix, the for-profit online school. The fact that University of Phoenix has been sued by multiple states and the Department of Education is an indicator for many that Spellings’ for-profit model isn’t suitable for higher ed. Finally, her time on the board of Ceannate Corporation is troubling to many. This company is a private student loan collection agency, so they make their profit when students are paying back their college loans at high interest rates. All of these things combined show that many people see her as unqualified to lead one of the nation’s best public university systems.

While the BOG Coalition does want to focus in part on Spellings’ record given the fact that we did not get to know her prior to her appointment, we also want to look at how the larger structure of the BOG created the conditions for this secretive selection process to take place. The Board has consistently shown to act outside of the public eye in a manner that does not reflect the needs of the University’s stakeholders, and because of that they were emboldened to make such an important decision without public input. Not only do we want Spellings to resign, but we want to see an entirely new process implemented within the Board which will give students, faculty, and staff the leverage that we ought to have in this process. We see no reason why representatives from these three groups can’t become voting members of the BOG, and it seems that they would be most qualified to make decisions based on what the University needs in a leader.

In organizing around this issue, our most successful event was probably the March 1st Walk Out. At six of the system schools, over 1,000 students, faculty, and staff walked out of class and off work on March 1st to protest the day that Spellings was sworn in as President. This took a lot of organizing across various campuses which all have very different issues facing them, and we worked hard to find common messaging that allowed us all to unite as one system around this common issue. Chapel Hill is definitely the most well-known UNC school, however we have other campuses, such as the Elizabeth City State University and other HBCUs, which are facing closure. This walk out was a real success because we were able to show students on the more prominent campuses that we have a responsibility to raise up and address the issues being faced by smaller campuses, HBCUs in particular.

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HC: How has your campus involvement impacted your Carolina experience?

SB: As an out-of-state student particularly, I feel that campus organizing has connected me to North Carolina which I would not have felt otherwise. I think students oftentimes feel that they are living in a bubble during their college career, and for four years they see their existence as being removed from the larger world. This could not be further from the truth. UNC, as an entity, is deeply connected to the surrounding community, and as students on this campus we are in part responsible for how the University relates to the broader world. I realize this is super cliché; being an organizer has really allowed me to take my college experience beyond the classroom. I have met amazing people whom I would never get the opportunity to meet if it wasn’t for my involvement in these campaigns, and I feel that I have developed really deep friendships with these people. I also feel that I have just learned to think much more deeply as a result of this activism - I feel that I’ve developed a worldview that simply would not be accessible to me if I only focused on my academics while in college. As a graduating senior, I definitely feel that I am more prepared for the “real world” because of my engagement with campus and community organizing over the past for years.

There is no doubt Shannon’s experience at Carolina exemplifies true student activism. Vishal Reddy, a fellow UNC BoG Democracy Coalition member, could not say enough about her important work on UNC’s campus.

“After a year of working closely with Shannon, especially this semester, I am continually impressed by her penchant for keeping a good sense of humor about whatever we’re working on without sacrificing her ability to critically evaluate the issues she’s working towards, an incredibly difficult balance to maintain,” said Vishal.

“Shannon’s humor mixed with her relentless positivity and optimism always lifts everyone’s spirits, energizing the rest of the team to take on these sometimes seemingly insurmountable challenge,” Vishal concluded.