The UNC Board of Governors got a rare tutorial Friday on how it should and shouldn’t govern. The head of the universities’ accrediting organization cautioned members against micromanaging, disregarding faculty authority or being unduly influenced by outside forces.
The presentation, from Belle Wheelan, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, was unusual. It followed a lengthy complaint earlier this year from a systemwide faculty group about the board’s past actions, which faculty said could jeopardize the accreditation of the 17 public campuses.
“Sometimes the behavior of the board will get the attention of the accreditor, and therefore, get the institutions in trouble,” Wheelan said Friday at the board’s meeting at UNC Asheville. It was the first meeting since the board was downsized and since new members, appointed by the legislature, took their seats.
The Atlanta-based commission monitors financial, governance and academic standards for nearly 800 colleges and universities in the South and has the power to sanction them. Accreditation is required for universities’ students to get federal financial aid.
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Wheelan briefed the board on how accreditation works and outlined the three primary roles of the board – making policy, hiring and firing presidents and taking on the fiduciary responsibility for the university. But she said board members should not be directing campus officials to do things or meddling with operations.
When boards start micromanaging, you’re stepping out of your lane and it gets my attention.
Belle Wheelan, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
“When boards start micromanaging, you’re stepping out of your lane and it gets my attention,” she told the board members.
Additionally, she said the board must protect academic freedom and respect the faculty’s authority over the curriculum and educational matters. She warned about small factions within the board trying to take over. She cited a situation at the University of Virginia, which was placed on a warning by the commission in 2012 after a few board members ousted the president, who was later reinstated.
The board must also maintain freedom from undue influence from political, religious or other external groups, Wheelan said, which can be tough when boards are appointed politicians. “That’s a fine line that you have to walk in that position,” she said, but added, “But with all due respect, governors and legislators run the state. You run the institution as the Board of Governors.”
Wheelan’s guidance comes as the university system has come through several years of upheaval, including the firing of former UNC President Tom Ross and the hiring last year of President Margaret Spellings.
Spellings called Wheelan’s appearance a “stop, look and listen,” basically a check in on “what the rules of the road are.” There is no pending issue with accreditation of UNC campuses, she stressed; all have a clean bill of health.
Faculty and others have said the board, appointed by the legislature, is too political.
In February, the systemwide Faculty Assembly sent a memo to Wheelan’s commission, listing 17 actions that faculty members say appear to run afoul of accreditation standards, noting legislators’ active participation at UNC board meetings, interference in the presidential search process and the passage of laws that encroach on board authority for tuition, admissions and policy. The faculty group said the Republican-led legislature has “packed” the UNC governing board with Republicans after the 2010 election.
In the past few years, the board has become more involved in searches for campus chancellors. It also took action to abolish three campus research centers after debates about ideology.
And the board’s ties to the legislature appear to be increasing; new members include three former legislators and a lobbyist.
Board Chairman Lou Bissette praised the new board and said having former legislators as members can be a benefit. The board also includes former members of campus trustee boards who have an understanding of higher education, Bissette said.
The board will face one of its most controversial votes in September, when it decides on a proposal to ban the UNC Center for Civil Rights from litigation on behalf of its clients, who are generally minority and low-income.
The proposal has garnered attention locally and nationally. This week, about 600 law professors and deans from across the country signed a letter to the board urging that it reject the ban. “Attacks on access to justice for the poor and marginalized are never the right answer,” the July 11 letter said.
Gabriel Lugo, chairman of the Faculty Assembly and a professor at UNC Wilmington, said clearly the situation was serious enough for Wheelan to make a personal appearance before the board.
“The intent of the Faculty Assembly has never been to question the authority of the board but to try to educate the board on what is a good model of governance. That includes shared governance with the faculty,” Lugo said. “When that’s understood, then the universities run much better.”
Lugo said Wheelan’s appearance was well-received by faculty.
“The message was clear,” he said, but whether it has an impact on the board and the legislature, “we have to wait and find out.”
Two vie for vice chair of UNC Board of Governors
Two board members will face off for vice chairman of the UNC Board of Governors.
Temple Sloan, a Raleigh businessman, and Harry Smith, a Greenville businessman, are seeking election to the vice chairmanship. The board is led by Lou Bissette, an Asheville lawyer.
On Friday, a motion was made to suspend the board’s rules and hold the vote immediately. Sloan threw his hat in the race in recent weeks.
The debate prompted Smith to say he didn’t understand why there was so much “angst in the air.” The motion did not go forward, and the board will proceed with plans to vote on officers in September.
Pearl Burris-Floyd, a former legislator from Dallas, N.C., is running unopposed for board secretary. She is former chief operating officer of the Gaston Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Bissette, Sloan, Smith and Burris-Floyd are all Republicans.