The committee designated to choose a successor to Tom Ross, the deposed president of the UNC system, is acting in secret and defiantly so. Obviously, no one wants a sensitive post filled by plebiscite. But in the light of the Ross firing, the board’s furtiveness has an ominous tint. When John Fennebresque, chairman of the UNC governing board, was asked where he saw the wish of faculty to meet the finalists going, he said, “Nowhere.”
Nowhere? Academic opinion is not infallible. But given this insolent attitude, we have no way of knowing how many candidates are being considered, who they are and what their qualifications may be. It seems Fennebresque’s design to hand us a list and a fait accompli at the same time.
If I were asked for advice to the unidentified beneficiaries of this dubious process (fat chance!), I would say: Beware!
Beware of sponsors who fired your predecessor for apparently political reasons and who will doubtless insist that you toe their party line. Beware of the blandishments of a body that ignored the pledge their predecessors made by way of persuading Ross to leave the presidency of Davidson for a position he had reason to think secure. Beware of a board with a declared agenda for unspecified “change” in the UNC system – an agenda I suspect has little to do with the core mission of higher education and much to do with commodification. Learning is increasingly confused these days with training. Both are valuable; they are not identical. And beware, finally, of a board that shows little sympathy with the heritage of liberal learning, as defined by Matthew Arnold: “The best that has been thought and said.”
I hear you asking: So what qualifications does this wiseacre claim to back up these warnings?
The answer, apart from some experience on the front lines of higher education, is a long friendship with UNC presidents, from Frank Porter Graham to Erskine Bowles. Concerning Dr. Graham, the first to take on the role when UNC’s three branches were “consolidated” in the 1930s, I cherish a vivid political memory. One June morning when I was 15, I spotted a stack of posters in my father’s car as he drove me to my summer job. “DON’T BE FOOLED BY THE BIGGEST LIES IN NC HISTORY,” it proclaimed.
“What are those?” I asked. My father put a cautionary forefinger across his lips. The occasion was the racially charged second Senate primary, whose target was Dr. Graham, the Senate incumbent by appointment to an unexpired term. For those with the stomach for a vivid account of raw racism, the best account in all its disgusting detail is in Sam Lubell’s “The Future of American Politics.”
My father, like thousands of alumni, venerated Frank Graham and was sufficiently aroused by the fetid campaign of derogation to risk his job – he was the local school superintendent, hence a public official. He was usually both wise and discreet. But he could not countenance the slander of that ugly campaign (in which the late Sen. Jesse Helms was deeply involved), and that even extended to early departure from neighborhood cookouts when unacceptable things were said.
That was one measure of his loyalty. Another was that a few days later, he and his ally William Shakespeare Harris, the Mebane postmaster; Harris’ son, Sandy; and I stayed up late addressing Graham postcards – in Harris’ office. They willingly risked embarrassment or worse; that was the sum of their loyalty to Graham and the UNC motto he embodied: Lux/Libertas – light and liberty.
Frank Graham’s legacy lingered after his departure from South Building in Chapel Hill. One of his distinguished legatees was his associate the late Bill Friday, who as an assistant to Gordon Gray was there in the Y-Court to welcome freshmen when I arrived. Friday’s courage, judgment and sense of academic essentials saved UNC from subversion by enemies and foolish friends.
With Graham, Gray, Friday and Bowles at the helm, I knew that the interests of the university were not in timid or partisan hands. Now those interests are at risk, and the risk is amplified by secrecy. And given Fennebresque’s arrogance, I for one am braced for a rude shock.
Edwin M. Yoder of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.