Politics & Government

Website aims to fight UNC board ‘meddling.’ But chairman says group is a ‘small vocal minority.’

A group of prominent university supporters and former board members are banding together to call out the UNC Board of Governors for “meddling and micromanaging” North Carolina’s 17 public university campuses to the point of endangering the future of higher education in the state, according to a statement signed by dozens.

The group launched a website, reformuncgovernance.com, asking others to sign on to the cause.

“The UNC System Board of Governors must refrain from meddling and micromanaging. It must let our leaders lead, our professors teach, and our students learn — for the good of the State of North Carolina,” the website says. “The governance of our university system needs serious reform. We need less political influence and more civic responsibility.”

The website calls for a “balanced and independent” governing board, “designed to outlast political transitions and comprised of members who have only one interest at heart: the success of our entire university system.”

The move comes as the university has been shaken up by the recent departures of the former system president, Margaret Spellings, after three years on the job, and the former UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor, Carol Folt, who resigned as she ordered the removal of the remains of the controversial Silent Sam Confederate statue. They were the two highest-profile women in public higher education in the state. Campus leaders had been at odds with the Board of Governors over the statue.

Harry Smith, chairman of the Board of Governors, likened the website and statement to “a political temper tantrum.” He said the website represents a “small vocal minority.”

Smith said the complaints lack specificity and fail to acknowledge the good things going on around the system, including the legislatively funded NC Promise low-tuition plan at three campuses and the turnaround at Elizabeth City State University, which has seen a rise in its enrollment and fortunes. The board is also working on a plan to address a backlog of campus repairs, he said.

“I’m certainly respectful of differing views and opinions,” Smith said, “and I have a lot of respect for the folks who have taken it upon themselves to create the messaging.”

But, he added: “It’s unfortunate such a very, very small group, which is predominantly comprised of UNC-Chapel Hill graduates, feels like they can message for the entire system and the state. ... I respect the fact that they want to get their message out, but I don’t think it’s representative of what we’re doing, what we’re accomplishing and the things we’ve taken on at the Board of Governors.”

Supporters of the statement include business and civic leaders, philanthropists and those who have served on university boards. Many of the signers are affiliated with UNC-Chapel Hill and the group is made up disproportionately of Democrats, but includes several prominent Republicans. The UNC Board of Governors, which is elected by the legislature, is almost entirely made up of Republicans.

Signers include three dozen former Board of Trustees members, mostly from UNC-Chapel Hill, and five former Board of Governors members — Bob Brown, Frank Daniels Jr., Fred Eshelman, Paul Fulton and Phil Phillips. Eleven former student body presidents at UNC-Chapel Hill added their names. And several faculty signed on, including James Moeser, the former chancellor at the Chapel Hill campus.

Roger Perry, a well-known developer and former UNC trustee, said people are worried about the UNC system, “the crown jewel” and economic driver in North Carolina.

“There are many people all over the state who have become alarmed that the Board of Governors has evolved into a group that is very much in the weeds micromanaging the university system rather than providing the normal advice and counsel that they’re charged with,” Perry said. “There’s been a great deal of concern over the loss of Margaret Spellings and Carol Folt.”

Perry said he is pleased with the choice of Bill Roper as interim president of the system but that Roper needs to be given the latitude to lead.

Politics needs to be removed from the equation, Perry added, saying no lobbyists should be able to serve as trustees or governors. “There’s a conflict of interest there that can’t be reconciled,” he said.

He cited the Silent Sam debate, but added there have been examples at other campuses, including criticism by the board of East Carolina University leaders and a failed chancellor search at Western Carolina University.

“I think the reputation of the university has been damaged by the actions of the board, and that’s one of the things we want to stop,” Perry said.

The website’s release follows a hard-hitting column last week by UNC alumna, former University of Michigan president and Association of American Universities President Mary Sue Coleman. The piece was published online by North Carolina higher education advocacy group Higher Education Works.

Coleman wrote that she had watched “with dismay as the UNC Board of Governors (BOG) has plunged one of the world’s most respected institutions of higher learning into a crisis.” She said the board had driven out former UNC system president Tom Ross, Spellings and Folt.

These departures and revolving door leadership, Coleman wrote, make it hard to attract and keep good leaders in the future. “The pattern of disorderly transition generated by the UNC BOG appears to be grounded in historical grievances,” she wrote. “Focusing on such grievances impairs the balanced leadership expected from a university system that was once a superstar of American higher education.”

Coleman said governance problems are not confined to North Carolina and cited other recent challenges in Virginia, Texas and Oregon. She said increasing pressures on higher education make this a critical time for good leadership, adding that boards everywhere are too focused on narrow educational goals like career prep.

She said boards should promote environments where people can question the status quo.

“Boards do not need to ‘resolve’ debate,” she wrote. “Universities do so themselves by encouraging the competition of ideas even if resolution of debate may take years or decades.”

Coleman added: “It is time for the University of North Carolina to lead again and be a model of good governance.”

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Jane Stancill has reported on higher ed for The News & Observer for 20 years. She has won state and national awards for her coverage of education.
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