‘Partisan creep’ brings UNC to the edge

Board member Tom Fetzer speaks at the UNC Board of Governors meeting Sept. 7. Fetzer later said he was troubled by a rise in tuition.
Board member Tom Fetzer speaks at the UNC Board of Governors meeting Sept. 7. Fetzer later said he was troubled by a rise in tuition. jwall@newsobserver.com

Political meddling with academic institutions is a dangerous business. I know whereof I speak first-hand. I was a freshman at Ole Miss in 1962, where an all night riot laid ruin to much of the university and left two people dead. It was about the admission of one black man, James Meredith, to the university.

Politicians – especially Gov. Ross Barnett – had been inflaming the situation for more than a year, publicly defying federal court orders, taking over as registrar of the university, and personally “standing in the door” on several occasions. The legislature was solidly behind him. As a result, the university almost lost its accreditation, applications fell by 10 percent, many students withdrew, a number of talented faculty left and the university was occupied by federal troops. The damage was immense.

It harkened back to Gov. Theodore Bilbo in the late 1920s. Unable to have his way on some higher education issues, he had every chancellor and president fired (except one) and many of the faculty purged. Ole Miss and every other university in the state, save one, lost their accreditation. It took decades to recover.

I share these recollections as a cautionary tale for our Board of Governors, which has taken an unprecedented and ideological role in the management of the state’s universities, especially at UNC-Chapel Hill. While nothing yet rivals the disasters in my home state of Mississippi, the trends and actions of the BOG toward partisan oversight and micromanagement are troubling. It is a slippery slope.

Many of us, especially southerners, moved to North Carolina largely because of UNC-Chapel Hill and the other institutions in the system. It was, literally, a beacon of light on a hill too often characterized by mediocrity and provincialism. It is a very special place to countless residents of this state, both Southern and not. That is why we must speak out against these dangerous trends.

The bill of particulars against the BOG is mounting, and leaders from both political parties are speaking out: former President Erskine Bowles, former BOG members Hannah Gage, Fred Eshelman and Paul Fulton, as well as other prominent North Carolinians like Hugh McColl.

The bill of particulars includes the bizarre and indefensible firing of former President Tom Ross, followed by the hiring of Margaret Spellings with little faculty or student input. Next came the farcical “study” of university centers which was seemingly aimed at closing the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at Chapel Hill. And, recently, there was the successful assault on the Center for Civil Right at UNC Chapel Hill’s law school, forbidding it from litigation despite the undeniable pedagogic value to students.

There has recently been the further politicization of the board under the leadership of professional politicians like Tom Fetzer, former head of the state GOP, and former state senator Bob Rucho. And, now, shudders run down the spine with the legislative mandate and BOG task force on free speech.

It is true that politics has circulated in the board for years, as one would expect of a board elected by the General Assembly, a method of board selection which I think is unique in the U.S. However, what has changed is the degree of micromanagement and interference with campus governance. Gage refers to this change as “partisan creep.” The connection between the highly partisan General Assembly and the BOG has brought us to a dangerous tipping point.

The system-wide Faculty Assembly chairman presented 17 accreditation issues to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools which in return issued a warning to the board about micromanaging the constituent universities and politicizing the academy. It should be said that despite the questionable process of her hiring, Spellings appears to be emerging as a voice of reason in leading the system through these troubled waters. I say that as one who protested her hiring.

Ole Miss in 1962? The loss of schools’ accreditation in Mississippi in the 1920s? Perhaps not that bad – yet. However, all of us who love this special university should keep a close watch. The stakes could not be higher.

Jesse L. White Jr., Ph. D., of Chapel Hill is retired from UNC Chapel Hill, but retains the rank of Adjunct Professor of Government and City and Regional Planning. Formerly, he headed up the Southern Growth Policies Board and the Appalachian Regional Commission and served in the U.S. Department of Education.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer