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UNC BOG Series Part III: Lack of communication on million-dollar ad campaign raises questions about its motive

At the beginning of October, coinciding with the opening of FASFA applications for 2019, the NC Promise program launched an ad campaign to promote the new plan. “We Promise” aims to raise awareness amongst North Carolinians about the opportunity to utilize NC Promise, which UNC claims will make higher education more affordable for students, yet has many low-income students paying more out-of-pocket costs. The marketing campaign comes with a $1 million price tag.

The News & Observer reported that the legislature funded the marketing push but did not specify who requested the funding. A public records request for any correspondence between Margaret Spellings, President of the UNC System, Drew Moretz, Vice President for State Government Relations for the UNC System, Timothy Minor, Vice President for University Advancement for the UNC System, Andrew P. Kelly, Senior Vice President for Strategy and Policy for the UNC System, Camille Barkley, Associate Vice President for Media Relations for the UNC System, Josh Ellis, Associate Vice President for Media Relations for the UNC System, Clayton Somers, Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs and Secretary to UNC-Chapel Hill, Amy Auth, Director of State Affairs at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the North Carolina General Assembly turned up no communication. According to this, there was absolutely no communication about a $1 million ad campaign between any members of the UNC System’s senior staff.

The “We Promise” ad thanks the legislature for making college more affordable; it’s a $1 million ad buy launched in the heat of campaign season in a crucial year where the Republican party’s hold on the state legislature could be weakened. Apparently, it was also a million-dollar expenditure that was not important enough to receive approval from a single senior UNC System staffer.

Relationships between the General Assembly and UNC Board of Governors cast doubton that. Amy Auth used to work for Senate leader Phil Berger, who as we noted in the last piece of our series has received over $100,000 from the Board in campaign donations. Likewise, Clayton Somers used to work for House Speaker Tim Moore, who followed Sen. Berger in contributions from the Board.

It is unclear who funded and approved this marketing program, thus its specific motives are also unclear. However, based on the research compiled for this series and the track record of Republican members of the North Carolina General Assembly, it is unlikely that their only motive is raising awareness. With this campaign launch occurring just days before the start of early voting, the likelihood is much higher that the “We Promise” ad is another opportunity for the Republican legislature to rally support from North Carolinians.