If a deal is done in the forest and no one hears about it, does it make any noise? Not if its the sale of Hofmann Forest, a research center bought by an N.C. State University fund in 1934 and named for Julius Doc Hofmann, who founded the forestry program in 1929.
Some level of controversy has swirled around the 79,000 acres near Jacksonville since word of a possible sale got out. Thats one problem. For a public institution, N.C. State didnt share much information about the sale of Hofmann with the public. The ownership of the forest fell under the trustees of the universitys Endowment Fund, but in the publics mind, and many in the university community agreed, this was public property.
But fund administrators seemed to want to move on the sale without much discussion and certainly without dissent. The logic, supported by NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson, was that Hofmann wasnt used that much as a research site and that its sale could produce revenue to support the College of Natural Resources. Thats what will happen now that an agribusiness company based in Illinois has bought it.
Because North Carolina has military bases in the area, the company will sell easements to the federal government for aviation training, and it will not use the land for housing development. An endowment fund will use investment income from the $150 million sale to help the university.
All this sounds fine, as it stands. But it must be noted that if the buyer decided to sell the property, none of the agreements with the university allowing student research, for example would move to a new owner.
Has the university made a good deal? Its impossible to say.
But one problem is the secrecy with which this was handled, and in particular the fact that, after opponents went to court, a Wake County Superior Court declined to issue a restraining order blocking the sale because the state Attorney Generals Office assured the court that a sale wasnt imminent.
But then there was a sale something for which the court might require some explanation.
One of the opponents correctly cited a lack of transparency and said he felt blindsided by the sale. That seems an accurate description.
Universities, particularly public ones, arent businesses. And they shouldnt operate in even partial secrecy when land deals are involved. Credibility is the issue here, and N.C. State has not handled this well. Woodson, who has seemed refreshingly comfortable with his duties to maintain openness, talked in the wake of the sale about realizing the forests full potential. He spoke of an obligation to our stakeholders the students, faculty, staff and alumni with regard to the forest property.
How about the obligation to the spirit of the intent of those who supported the purchase of the forest as an academic research center? This is 79,000 acres that will be gone forever in terms of the universitys ownership. How many 79,000-acre pieces of property are left in North Carolina? Even if the university isnt using the property much for research now, that could have changed. But the option is gone now, assuming opponents of the sale dont win points in court.
N.C. State should better explain the reasons behind the sale, how many people or businesses showed an interest and why it was not more transparent in this process. The obligation to openness comes before making a transaction comfortable for buyers and bidders. That obligation is the most important one N.C. State has to its real stakeholders: the people of North Carolina.