Rob Christensen

Christensen: UNC system - NC's crown jewels - now in GOP hands

The UNC board of governors meets Friday, Jan. 16, 2015, in Chapel Hill.
The UNC board of governors meets Friday, Jan. 16, 2015, in Chapel Hill. ehyman@newsobserver.com

“The election of a president of this university,” Gov. O. Max Gardner remarked in 1930, “is of more importance to North Carolinians than the election of any governor or any senator at any time.”

Gardner, an influential industrialist/lawyer from Shelby, did as much as any political figure to shape modern North Carolina. He made his comment shortly before leading the effort to create the consolidated University of North Carolina and to elevate Frank Porter Graham as its first, and most famous, president.

The search to replace UNC President Tom Ross, who is being forced to retire, is unlikely to assume the same importance as it did in 1930. North Carolina is a much larger, more diverse state today.

But the university system is still the state’s crown jewels.

Since the early 1920s, as the state industrialized, the creation of a first-rate university system has been North Carolina’s calling card.

It is a brand – to use the current buzz word – that North Carolina has been building for nearly a century.

North Carolina did not have the huge oil fields of Texas, the sunshine and beaches of Florida, the big-city bustle of Atlanta or the jazz of New Orleans. But it did – and still does – have the best university system in the South.

This is no small thing, as the three legs of North Carolina’s initial wave of industrialization – textile, furniture and tobacco – have largely moved to China or other points offshore, leaving a moonscape of padlocked factory gates in mill towns across the state.

The university system has not only educated thousands, it has been an economic engine, helping spawn entrepreneurs such as Jim Goodnight and Dennis Gillings, attracting huge research grants and making the Research Triangle Park possible.

It was not a given that a largely poor, rural state such as North Carolina would create a great university system. It took a sustained effort by generations of business and civic leaders to make it so.

Broad support

UNC’s support has always crossed ideological and party lines. Today, one of the most important backers of the university is Wilmington businessman Fred Eshelman, a major conservative donor.

The UNC presidents have had mixed politics. There have been outspoken liberals such as Graham. And there have been conservatives such as Gordon Gray, who was Army secretary under Harry Truman and national security adviser under Dwight Eisenhower.

And there have been moderates such as Dick Spangler, who hosted a fundraiser for President George W. Bush, and Erskine Bowles, who was Bill Clinton’s chief of staff but was also an investment banker enthusiastically backed for the UNC presidency by Republicans.

Speculation about Ross’ future had been in the wind for months. Ross, a highly respected former Davidson University president, has strong ties to the Democratic establishment. While Ross apparently got along fine with the all-GOP UNC board, the Republicans wanted their own person in charge of the university system.

There is precedent for forcing the retirement of UNC presidents at age 65. Even Bill Friday, a Tar Heel icon, was forced to retire at 65.

The larger question is whether UNC’s new management can find the means to adequately fund the university system. State funding of the UNC system today is basically at the same level it was in 2008-2009.

During that period, the state went through the worst recession since the Great Depression. But that is no longer the case.

So care of the university system is now on the Republicans’ watch. And history will judge whether they will continue the legacy of excellence or let the system slide into mediocrity.

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