A funny week (or not) for the UNC Board of Governors

UNC Board of Governors member Steve Long.
UNC Board of Governors member Steve Long. File photo

The UNC Board of Governors isn’t usually a source of entertainment, but this past week you couldn’t help but be amused by the hijinks surrounding the state’s guardians of higher education.

Things got underway on Monday with East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton announcing his resignation after three years on the job. You would think that a former state senator from Georgia who sponsored a tough Georgia Voter ID law would check all the boxes for pleasing the conservative Republicans who dominate the Board of Governors. But he clashed with Board Chairman Harry Smith, an ECU grad, and had trouble with football boosters, among other problems.

At a news conference, Staton didn’t say anything about the forces behind his departure. He has a lot riding on going out smoothly — a $589,000 exit payment. But that didn’t stop Steve Long, a Republican member of the Board of Governors, from issuing a manifesto declaring that Staton’s departure “was one of the saddest and most unfortunate chapters in the history of North Carolina higher education.”

The cause of this sadness, Long wrote in a statement, was Chairman Smith. Long said Smith was irritated because Staton wouldn’t go along with a real estate deal involving ECU student housing and Smith proceeded to carry out “an irrational personal vendetta against the chancellor.” He called for Smith’s ouster.

Long responded to a request for comment by saying he thinks he has said enough. Smith said there is no basis for Long’s charges.

Whether Long’s intimations are true should be sorted out, but it’s nonetheless ironic to hear him complain that Smith was “meddling far too much in the management of ECU.” This is the same Steve Long who successfully pushed the Board of Governors to close UNC’s Poverty Center and strip the UNC Center for Civil Rights of its legal powers to represent poor and minority clients in court. He did so over the objections of then-UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt.

Speaking of Folt, who resigned in January after clashing with the Board of Governors, she was hired last week to lead the University of Southern California. USC officials cited Folt, a cautious and accommodating chancellor for most of her UNC tenure, as an academic Joan of Arc whose stand against the Confederate statue Silent Sam showed a fearless grit that will help USC resolve its own troubles. Um, Ok.

Meanwhile, back at the General Assembly, Republican lawmakers were busy restocking the Board of Governors with Republicans over bitter Democratic objections. This came despite a bipartisan appeal from former UNC system president Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Richard Vinroot to balance the board’s membership with a wider range of political perspectives. Otherwise, they wrote, leaders of the General Assembly “risk damaging our great system’s very foundation.”

Senate leader Phil Berger, the godfather of the ultra-partisan Board of Governors, dismissed such calls. Sure, the board looks like sub-committee of Berger’s Republican caucus, but he said, “There’s a lot of diversity amongst Republicans.”

Now that’s funny.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com