For decades, Republicans and Democrats on the UNC Board of Governors set aside partisan politics, established policy for the universities, and turned the operation of the system and campuses over to the president and campus chancellors. That tradition, which served the state admirably, helped build a university system that is the envy of the world.
That tradition is now threatened. Some of the board members want to be involved in the operation of the campuses. The most recent example is Tom Fetzer’s meddling in the search for a new chancellor at Western Carolina. Fetzer, a former Raleigh mayor who is now a lobbyist, sent an email to fellow board members last month, questioning the leading candidate’s credentials.
Fetzer said the candidate had a misrepresentation on his resume. Records obtained by The News & Observer’s Jane Stancill show Fetzer emailed several board members in July, saying he had contacted a friend at a screening firm to review the candidate’s resume.
Several board members, including former chairman Lou Bissette, objected. He said Fetzer’s actions were “way outside the realm” of a board member’s role and that Fetzer violated confidentiality requirements by disclosing information about the candidate without authorization from the board.
Then 10 former board members, representing both political parties, said the board was too driven by partisan politics and criticized the handling of the Western Carolina case as “clearly bad governance.”
That criticism echoed complaints last year from a faculty group, which was followed by an unusual presentation from UNC’s accrediting agency. Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, said the board had three primary roles — making policy, hiring and firing presidents and taking on the fiduciary responsibility for the university. “When boards start micromanaging,” Wheelan told board members, “you’re stepping out of your lane and it gets my attention.”
Wheelan’s guidance wasn’t heard by all. The board, which has 28 members elected by the legislature, is almost entirely made up of Republicans. Since Republicans took control of the legislature in 2011 and started appointing board members, the board has become more and more partisan. The three most recent chairmen — Peter Hans, John Fennebresque and Bissette, all Republicans — worked to stem the tide of partisanship and preserve the proper role for board members.
The new chairman, Harry Smith of Greenville, dismissed the Fetzer incident as “a tiff” and said criticism from the former board members was unfair.
Smith is either being disingenuous or he’s fooling himself. This is a test of his leadership. If the UNC system is to remain one of the best in the world, Smith needs to quell the bomb-throwing insurgents who want to run the system with their own ideas about who should be chancellor, provost, dean of admissions and assistant men’s basketball coach at each of the universities.
If he doesn’t, he’ll lose President Spellings and any chance of recruiting a top-flight leader to replace her. No sought-after education leader is going to want to work with a board that tampers and interferes. If the board become a mini-legislature, with horse trading and patronage promises, the university system will deteriorate to mediocrity.
The legislature hasn’t helped by appointing lobbyists, who rely on legislators for their livelihoods. That sacrifices the independence of the board — a quality that the accreditor said was vital.
The barbarians are at UNC’s gate. To state otherwise is to be in denial. If they get through, the university system that is North Carolina’s cherished jewel will be that no longer.