Chapel Hill: Opinion

Kirk Ross: They fire university presidents, don’t they?

They fired the president of the University of North Carolina the other day.

You can call it what you want, but it looked pretty classic to me.

They, the Board of Governors, did give Tom Ross a full year to clean out his desk. Still, the ouster came with little notice and even less in the way of a clear explanation.

The press conference afterward was tense and awkward. The firing was not political, the Board of Governors chair said. The room sat in silence as the claim hit the back of the rim with a loud clank and fell to the floor.

No matter what some political appointee who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contribution tells you, the BOG is a political body. Its members might enjoy consensus and espouse high-minded principals of higher education, but they hardly check their politics at the door.

Their appointments are a reflection of the direction their appointers see the state and its university heading. And there’s a cascading effect as the board in turn decides on chancellors and members of the board of trustees of the various institutions.

Around the legislature, the maneuvering to wrangle a seat on the board can often go over the top or even get ugly. More than one legislative leader has confided that it is the least enjoyable part of every session.

Itメs good to remember that unlike many of their campuses, the BOG and the university system are not venerable institutions. The system and its board were created in 1971 – a mere 44 years ago – in one of the biggest higher ed maelstroms this state has ever seen.

I once heard former Gov. Bob Scott describe what it took to get the bill creating the consolidated system through the legislature. Although sworn to secrecy, I will tell you that in the end it involved parliamentary sleight of hand, hard liquor and the State Highway Patrol.

Thanks to some pretty good tutors, I learned in my years covering the Chapel Hill campus and the UNC system that state politics is never very far away and it was only through understanding and managing the political influences that the truly great administrators of the campus and the system saw real success.

In these times, the idea of de facto autonomy or that there is some sacred firewall protecting the campuses from politics are not just myths, they are dangerous myths.

Each and every campus, even the one founded in the 18th century, are creatures of the state and subject to the same winds of change as the rest of it.

What we are witnessing in state government is perhaps the greatest reshaping since the era that included the consolidation of the university system. It should be obvious that at some point what is happening to other parts of state government would happen here, too.

Also obvious is that the change at the top is just the beginning. In the short run, the moves last week do not bode well for the various university centers and institutes that are under scrutiny for ideological impurity. And going into a session where revenues are tightening, there are few things worse than ousting the person who is making the main case for funding.

In the long run, who knows? The only thing certain is that the real world has caught up to the university. And the time has passed to revel in myths.

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at kmr@rossalmanac.com  

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