Filling positions on the UNC Board of Governors is not usually a front-page story, but the N.C. General Assembly’s actions this year will likely be remembered as a critical moment in the legislature’s legacy. Lawmakers will choose between returning to excellence in the governance of the university or continuing the all-too-frequent missteps and overreach that have defined the work of the current board.
While board members may be sincere in their intent to act in the public interest, there has been in many cases a significant gap between those intentions and their effects. Students, staff, faculty, administrators and state residents have repeatedly urged the board to consider the potential destructiveness of its policies and practices, often to no avail. The full list of these occasions is too long to enumerate, but considering a few of the board’s recent actions may make the point:
▪ Changing the employment terms for UNC system President Thomas Ross. The public outcry over this decision showed that Ross enjoys great respect for his leadership. Even the Board of Governors had to admit that Ross has done an outstanding job. Yet the board still hasn’t offered a compelling case for its decision. Eroding public confidence in the board’s ability to make wise decisions has been the result. By extension, those doubts have also come to reflect badly on our elected representatives.
▪ Changes in the search process for the president of the university. Despite the stated concerns of students, staff, faculty and even one of its own members, the board decided to endorse a policy that encourages autocratic abuse and discourages inclusiveness in the search process. Under its new policy, the board has a single individual – over whose appointment the officers of the board would have undue influence – chairing every committee in the search proceedings. The difficulty is that any nominee coming out of this process will be seen as a creature of the board officers rather than as the best qualified candidate available.
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▪ Consideration of board intervention in campus chancellor search processes. The board says it respects the autonomy of campus leadership search committees, but it doesn’t follow good governance practices. The board now wants to insert its members into campus leadership search committees, the near-certain effect of which will be to stifle open discussion and candor in the deliberations of those who have the relevant experience, expertise and knowledge to make well-informed recommendations. As with the president search process, any nominee for campus leadership coming out of such proceedings will be seriously compromised. New chancellors lacking the full support of their campuses rarely last long.
▪ Intervention in campus-based research and service activities. The decision to scrutinize all 240 research and service centers in the system was pursued over the vociferous objection of students, staff, faculty and a very broad public. This process has been enormously costly and wasteful, has interfered with chancellor and provost efforts to effectively manage their institutions, will make it difficult for faculty to recruit and retain talented colleagues, has discouraged staff members from having confidence in the judgment of governing bodies and has raised serious doubts on the part of students who believe their institutions should serve the public good, not narrowly partisan party interests.
Taken together, these decisions suggest that this board does not trust the judgment and expertise of those who have made the university system a richly diverse and enormously successful institution of higher learning and a highly effective engine of prosperity.
History has shown that officers of centralized authority who use their power to manage rather than enable the pursuit of effectiveness and efficiency cultivate cultures of mediocrity, misdirected initiative, stifled innovation, distrust, fearful self-interest and wasteful bureaucratic burden.
Unfortunately, all of these failings are beginning to define the legacy of this board. In just a few years, the university has been increasingly pushed toward dysfunction, degradation and national disrepute.
The question now is whether this will also be the historical legacy of the N.C. General Assembly. It needn’t be so: Our elected representatives can restore confidence in our university simply by appointing men and women who both cherish the university and understand that great institutions deserve great governance.
Stephen Leonard is chairman of the UNC system Faculty Assembly, whose entire membership endorsed this piece, as did 15 chairs of UNC system campus faculty senates and 500 other signatories.