Opinion

How to fix the UNC Board of Governors

UNC President Margaret Spellings attends the UNC Board of Governors meeting where an emergency session was called where the board discussed her departure package during a closed session Friday, Oct.. 26, 2018 in Chapel Hill.
UNC President Margaret Spellings attends the UNC Board of Governors meeting where an emergency session was called where the board discussed her departure package during a closed session Friday, Oct.. 26, 2018 in Chapel Hill. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Those upset with how the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors is running the 17-campus system have been circulating a year-old magazine profile of Chairman Harry Smith. The profile, written by Jim Pomeranz and published last January in Business North Carolina, was headlined “Mr. Smith goes to Chapel Hill.”

But unlike the original Mr. Smith, who went to Washington, Harry Smith didn’t quite know where he was going to serve. The profile opens with this anecdote:

“”Back in 2012, Greenville filter-company executive Harry Smith got a call from the state’s most powerful lawmaker asking about his interest in serving on one of the state’s most prominent boards. ‘When I was called by Phil Berger at first about the [University of North Carolina] Board of Governors, I didn’t even know what the Board of Governors was,’ Smith says. ‘Who?’ I asked. ‘You know, they manage the University of North Carolina System,’ I was told. I said, ‘No, I’m not interested in that.’ But after several subsequent phone calls, I signed up.”

That anecdote encapsulates far more than the start of Smith’s board tenure. It also tells the story of how the board has been detoured down a rocky political track and underscores why the University of North Carolina is now facing a crisis of leadership.

Smith, an East Carolina University graduate, did not know much about the overall system’s governance, but Berger knew just enough about Smith. He was a very successful businessman and a major contributor to Republicans. Those two qualities are what matter most as the legislature’s Republican leadership has stocked the 28-member board with hard-driving conservatives on a mission to “fix” rather than protect and advance the state’s greatest asset.

Now, they’ve fixed it till they broke it. They fired the respected former UNC President Tom Ross for the offense of being a Democrat. Then they drove off UNC President Margaret Spellings and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt by micromanaging and publicly criticizing their work. The board has alienated many faculty by closing academic centers seen as too liberal. Most prominently, it has made a mess of the Silent Sam controversy.

After the stormy exits of Ross, the former president of Davidson College, Spellings, a former U.S. Secretary of Education, and Folt, a former acting president of Dartmouth, there’s rising concern that the university will not be able to attract top-quality candidates to serve as president and chancellors.

But the root of the problem isn’t individuals — whether they be embattled academic administrators or meddling Republican boosters. The problem now exposed is with the design of the university’s governance. Twenty eight board members is a caucus, not a board. And North Carolina is one of only a few states in which all members of the higher education governing body are appointed by the legislature.

What’s needed is a smaller board with members appointed by the governor as well as the legislature. There should be requirements for a bipartisan and demographic mix among members.

It’s unlikely that the legislature’s Republican leadership will agree to any changes, but a new governance design should be a top issue for Democrats in 2020. In the meantime, those with power outside of the legislature — the state’s civic, education and business leaders — should bring pressure to bear to keep the board from wandering further off track and taking the university’s reputation with it.

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