Faculty cite concerns about legislature, board to UNC accreditor

Members of the UNC Board of Governors gather at a 2016 meeting. The House is considering legislation to downsize the board from 32 to 24 members.
Members of the UNC Board of Governors gather at a 2016 meeting. The House is considering legislation to downsize the board from 32 to 24 members. News & Observer file photo

A UNC system faculty group has told a major higher education accrediting body that actions by North Carolina’s legislature and the UNC Board of Governors could put state public universities’ accreditation at risk.

The UNC system’s Faculty Assembly, made up of representatives from the 17 public campuses, sent a memo Saturday to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. The Atlanta-based organization monitors financial, governance and academic standards for colleges and universities in the region, and has the power to sanction them.

The memo included a copy of a January resolution by the Faculty Assembly that expressed “serious concerns about the implications of the actions” of the legislature and the Board of Governors.

Gabriel Lugo, chairman of the Faculty Assembly and a professor at UNC Wilmington, said sending the memo to the commission was a difficult decision. Lugo worked intensely on the last accreditation review at his campus, which he said UNCW passed with flying colors. Faculty generally want a rock solid accreditation, which signals academic quality and ensures access to federal dollars.

Accreditation standards are rooted in integrity, Lugo said, and faculty felt duty bound to raise concerns. He said he hoped the legislature and the UNC board would take seriously the issues raised, before the threat of any accreditation sanctions.

“That would be an extreme thing, and I am hoping it doesn’t get there,” Lugo said. “I am hoping that this is basically a wake-up call, that there are many things that are being done that may be damaging to the reputation of the university.”

Belle Wheelan, president of the SACS Commission on Colleges, said in an email that she had received the information and would begin reviewing it next week. She explained that the commission accredits individual universities, not university systems.

“After it is reviewed, I will send a letter to the institutions to ask them to demonstrate that they are still in compliance with our standards,” she wrote. “Their responses will then be reviewed and, if satisfactory, no further action will be taken. If not, then our Board of Trustees will be asked to act upon it.”

The memo from Lugo listed 17 actions that faculty members say appear to run afoul of the commission’s 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. Specifically, the faculty cite: the legislature’s “guaranteed” admission plan that would divert more students to community colleges; the legislature’s $500 per semester tuition plan for three campuses and the legislature revoking the board’s fine against UNC-Chapel Hill for exceeding a cap on the number of out-of-state students allowed.

Also cited was a recent law that stripped the North Carolina governor of the authority to appoint members to campus trustee boards. The faculty group said the legislature has “packed” the UNC governing board with Republicans after the 2010 election.

While defending the board’s prerogatives against legislative meddling, the resolution called out some of the board’s actions that seem to wade into the authority of individual campuses. It said the system board had become too involved in chancellor searches and had abolished three campus research centers after debates about ideology. Also mentioned was the 2015 firing of former UNC President Tom Ross without explanation by the board, when some members were not consulted.

The Faculty Assembly’s resolution has been endorsed by faculty senates at seven of the individual UNC campuses – Appalachian State, East Carolina, N.C. Central, N.C. State, UNC School of the Arts, UNC Wilmington and Winston-Salem State University.

The faculty warning comes at a time when the legislature has moved to decrease the size of the UNC system’s governing board by 25 percent by 2019. Proponents say downsizing the board would make it more efficient, a theory UNC President Margaret Spellings has echoed. Critics say it would hurt diversity on the now 32-member board, which has six women and four African-Americans.

On Monday, Hannah Gage, a current board member and the only past female chair, wrote that the legislature’s move would exacerbate a situation where there is too much political influence on what should be an independent university board. She likened the current board to a “1950s men’s club.”

“The same legislators who complain about the monochrome politics of college professors appear to think the antidote is an all-Republican BOG, kept on a tight leash by the GOP supermajority in the General Assembly,” said Gage, a Democrat from Wilmington. “This outlook is not in keeping with the proper function of the Board of Governors, which is to represent as best we can the rich diversity of North Carolina.”

Gage asserted that some of the board’s members were too close to legislators. She cited a growing philosophical divide on the board: “one group believes the board is an extension of the General Assembly and should filter all our actions through the legislative lens.”

Marty Kotis, a Republican board member from Greensboro, said the UNC system is owned by the taxpayers, not the current batch of students or faculty. Legislators remind the university what their constituents are saying, "which is, 'tuition is getting too expensive', or 'I'm graduating and I'm not able to get a job in the field in which I studied.'"

The $500 tuition program, Kotis said, "would have never in a million years come up through the campuses, or the faculty, or the General Administration, because it's a direct benefit directly back to the students."

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill