Op-Ed

Shrinking UNC’s board will tighten the legislature’s partisan grip

Roll is called as members of the UNC Board of Governors is read prior to the start of a meeting for the board to discuss House Bill 2 in Chapel Hill in May 2016. Proposed legislation would reduce the size of the board’s membership from 32 to 24.
Roll is called as members of the UNC Board of Governors is read prior to the start of a meeting for the board to discuss House Bill 2 in Chapel Hill in May 2016. Proposed legislation would reduce the size of the board’s membership from 32 to 24. cliddy@newsobserver.com

In the next few days the N.C. General Assembly likely will vote to shrink the UNC System Board of Governors from 32 members to 24, which, on the surface, sounds very sensible. Look closer, however, and the consequences of such a change make it less appealing.

First, what is the ideological and political rationale behind such a change? Second, what impact will a smaller board have on its diversity?

Supporters in the General Assembly say a smaller board will be more efficient and easier to manage. But easier for whom to manage? The General Assembly? The size of the board has not been a significant problem. It can be challenging to lead – herding cats has come to mind at times – but that usually has more to do with individuals, not the size of the body. Simply put, size is an irritant but not a catastrophic problem that needs correcting.

The UNC Board of Governors was established to ensure the state’s public universities – surely among our most precious institutions – would be safeguarded from the vicissitudes of partisan politics. Board members – however imperfectly – have always aspired to this nonpartisan ideal.

It will not have escaped anyone’s notice, however, that since Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2010, a systematic partisan purge of the UNC Board of Governors has been underway. By itself, this has not been a problem. Regardless of party affiliation and the fact that we often disagree on issues, we are united in our sincere concern for the future of our universities.

Left to ourselves, we usually find a way to muddle through and do our best to serve the people. Herein lies the essential conflict: the General Assembly does not want to leave us to ourselves.

Another equally troubling problem is the Board of Governors’ growing philosophical divide: one group believes the board is an extension of the General Assembly and should filter all our actions through the legislative lens. The other group believes the board should operate with a greater degree of autonomy, respecting the crucial funding and relationship with the General Assembly, but believing the best university decisions are made without intimate legislative involvement.

The latter group believes there is such a thing as being “too close” to the legislature. These competing perspectives have animated the conflict that has existed on the board in recent years; it has had nothing to do with the size of the board.

The other critical issue arising from a smaller board is diversity of its members. Does anyone really believe that a smaller board will result in greater diversity? The same legislators who complain about the monochrome politics of college professors appear to think the antidote is an all-Republican BOG, kept on a tight leash by the GOP supermajority in the General Assembly. This outlook is not in keeping with the proper function of the Board of Governors, which is to represent as best we can the rich diversity of North Carolina. The board needs to be sensitive to and inclusive of the full spectrum of our state: different perspectives of gender, race, social class, and political philosophy should have a place in the board’s deliberations. Unfortunately, the UNC Board of Governors looks more like a 1950s men’s club than it does the citizenry of North Carolina.

There are many good and well-intentioned legislators, but the best intentions of a white male, Democrat or Republican, can never replicate the life experience and perspective of a female or a minority board member. The best public policy decisions involve more voices, not fewer.

At a time when our state is looking like a melting pot of the world; when more than half of the 220,000 UNC students are women; the enrollment population is becoming browner; and President Margaret Spellings is working hard on a strategic plan that calls for greater commitment to educating underserved populations, the legislature seems intent on narrowing the opportunities to have all the people’s voices at the table.

As the current legislative leadership continues to expand its power, it will no doubt appoint more like-minded acolytes to the UNC Board of Governors. Having fewer members makes it easier to control both the board and policy for the state universities. When a supermajority exerts this kind of power – whether it is Democratic or Republican – it weakens the target – in this case, the University of North Carolina.

Legislators who care deeply about the university – Republicans, Democrats and independents – should pause before supporting this measure. It is not what it seems. It will not strengthen the University of North Carolina, and it could potentially weaken one of the state’s great economic engines.

As the longest-serving member of the UNC Board of Governors, as the only woman to ever chair the board, and as a member who has worked with multiple system presidents, legislators, governors and boards of both parties, we need more diversity on our board and less legislative involvement. Changing the size of the UNC Board of Governors accomplishes neither of these goals.

Wilmington resident Hannah Dawson Gage is the emeritus member of the UNC Board of Governors. She is speaking only for herself and not on behalf of the UNC Board of Governors.

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