Board must defend UNC’s mission in law center vote

On Sept. 8, the UNC Board will consider what may prove to be its most significant action in the nearly 50-year history of its existence. If the board approves a new policy that would constrain the university from engaging in litigation, the consequence may prove disastrous for every student who has or hopes to hold a diploma from the university’s 16 constituent campuses. This would be an unprecedented failure of the board’s duty to promote and protect excellence in North Carolina public higher education.

Most of the public complaints about this proposed policy have focused on the apparent partisanship behind its intentions, and the perspective of its main proponent, UNC Governor Steven Long. But despite the public outcry, the fact of the matter is that partisanship isn’t really the problem. The UNC Board has over the years repeatedly tried to act in partisan ways, regardless of the political party in charge. Yet until recently, university leaders managed to counsel the board to allow well-established and time-tested structures and processes of academic governance – not partisan interests – to guide the management of university affairs.

It has been by that counsel, and by the board confining itself to its legal obligations and duties to the people of this state, that public higher education in North Carolina has been able to evolve into a system that is consistently recognized as one of the best in the country, and indeed the world. With this policy, however, the board will overturn that precedent, and instead of enabling the work of president of the university, the chancellors of the campuses and the faculty whose teaching, research and service have made UNC schools world-class institutions, the board will effectively declare itself the arbiter of what UNC students will learn, what research will be allowed and what service the university can provide to the people of North Carolina.

That isn’t partisanship. It is intellectual arrogance and conceit. Most important, what that unmitigated self-importance could mean should be the concern of every North Carolinian who expects public officials to act in responsible ways.

Many decades ago, higher education leaders in the United States recognized the real and potential dangers of political partisanship morphing into intellectual arrogance and conceit. In their wisdom, they established independent academic accrediting organizations that would certify colleges and universities were awarding degrees of merit and worth, because they followed best practices of teaching, research and service. Those standards of excellence included principles of higher education governance that specified the roles of faculty, administration and governing bodies like UNC campus trustees, the system Board of Governors and political authorities like governors and legislatures.

Unfortunately, there have been numerous accreditation standards that the UNC Board (and the legislature) have ignored over the last half decade, and the system is currently under watch from the regional accreditation commission (the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools – Commission on Colleges). Indeed, matters have become so tenuous that the president of SACSCOC visited with the UNC Board at its July meeting, providing a primer on academic governance and outlining the consequences of accreditation violations.

Yet flaunting that cautionary instruction, and in full knowledge that a policy banning litigation by the university would be in direct violation of both SACSCOC and American Bar Association accreditation standards on management of the academic curriculum, teaching standards, institutional structures and organizational authority, members of the board have plowed ahead with this proposal.

If approved, the action of the UNC Board will almost certainly result in probes, if not sanctions, from accrediting commissions. And proclaim as they might that they have the authority to pass such a policy, the board should remember that having authority and using it wisely are two very different things.

In the last analysis, though, it would be North Carolinians – not the members of the UNC Board – who would bear the burdens of the board’s failure to use its powers wisely and uphold its duty to protect and promote excellence in higher education. Accreditation probes and sanctions would radically compromise assessments of quality and integrity of UNC degrees, discourage deserving students from attending UNC schools, lead to talented faculty leaving UNC schools, make it very difficult for our colleges and universities to attract new faculty and administrators, and virtually assure that public and private grants supporting scholarships, cutting-edge inquiry, innovations in teaching and creative forms of public service would not be coming to North Carolina schools.

We should expect better of the men and women given the honor of governing our great universities. The question now is whether they will expect better of themselves.

Stephen Leonard is the immediate past chairman of the UNC system Faculty Assembly.

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