UNC board begins controversial study of system’s General Administration

The UNC Board of Governors, seen here in September 2017.
The UNC Board of Governors, seen here in September 2017.

As a UNC Board of Governors task force began its analysis of UNC President Margaret Spellings’ staff on Monday, members brushed aside suggestions of a rift between Spellings and the board.

The task force was created by the board last month at a contentious meeting. It held its first session Monday in Chapel Hill, led by former legislator Bob Rucho, an outspoken Republican state senator who joined the UNC board this summer.

With a goal of studying the purpose of the UNC system’s General Administration, the task force will examine the staffing, duties and budget of some 265 employees in Chapel Hill who report to Spellings. The General Administration has an annual budget of $65.4 million.

It’s unclear whether the task force is looking to increase, decrease or change the focus of the staff in the system office, which includes administrators, policy advisers, compliance officers, data managers, financial professionals, lawyers and technical and support staff.

Last month, several board members suggested the new look at General Administration amounted to the board challenging and meddling in Spellings’ management of the university system.

“There’s always disagreements,” Rucho said Monday. “The ultimate goal is the policymakers, who are the Board of Governors, with consultation with the president, establish a policy that we all agree upon and move forward in the best interest of the institution.”

Task force members said it was time to take a look at the system staff. Rucho called the review “a massive job.” He said the task force should communicate with the 17 campus chancellors, and with faculty, to determine if the General Administration was meeting the needs of its customers.

“Are we doing services today that are no longer necessary, as it was 10 years ago?” Rucho posed. “More importantly, if we are, how do we modify, how do we focus the attention of General Administration on improving the quality of education, reducing the cost, allowing us to improve the four-year graduation rate?”

Spellings briefed the panel, which includes some new members, about a $1 million study by the Boston Consulting Group completed last year. The consultants interviewed 150 stakeholders, delved into the General Administration staff and made 15 recommendations about how UNC, its staff and board should operate.

She also said in August she launched a budgeting process that starts at zero, with the goal of reducing state funding for personnel by 10 percent. In 2016, Spellings said, $1.3 million went unspent and $300,000 was reverted to the state.

“I hope there’s nobody around this table who cares more about an effective, mean, lean fighting machine at General Administration and the system level than myself and your senior leaders,” Spellings said. “We welcome your scrutiny and your advice as we achieve that goal.”

Board member Jim Holmes responded by saying the task force isn’t adversarial but an exercise in improvement. “We’re not here to drive scrutiny. ... You put a lot of smart minds around the table, you come up with even better ideas,” he said.

Harry Smith, the board’s vice chairman, said it was important to get the narrative right. He condemned editorial attacks that “have been very childish at best.”

“We’re behind our president,” Smith said, adding, “We’re going to support her in the fact that she may have strong views and opinions that we need to hear from her that may not be aligned with the Board of Governors. ... I think it’s also important for us not to forget all the great things that the UNC system does every single day.”

About 58 percent of the UNC system staff perform work mandated by UNC policy or state law, said Jonathan Pruitt, a senior vice president at UNC.

The discussion Monday zeroed in on the legislature’s mandated reports from the system office. Several members suggested that some of those reports are time consuming and may no longer be relevant.

But former Republican House member and current board member Leo Daughtry cautioned that it will be difficult to do away with information reports to the legislature.

“I think it’s going to be a real quagmire,” Daughtry said. “It’s going to take some time to do and may not be as easy as we think.”

Holmes suggested the board itself could reduce reporting requirements on the staff. “If we’re going to ask to police others, let’s police ourselves too,” he said.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill