Jim Jenkins

Jenkins: At UNC, seeking but not finding

The rumors started a couple, maybe three weeks ago. On the grapevine that runs along highway 54 in Chapel Hill, ‘round the General Administration building of the University of North Carolina system, little brushfires started burning.

There’s no point to giving heed to all the rumors, but as the brushfires have turned to wildfires, a lot about the stumbling search for a new president for the UNC system has become virtually common knowledge.

So here’s what’s doing, much of it as ably reported by The News & Observer: The top character in our story is John Fennebresque, the Charlotte lawyer who is chairman of the system Board of Governors and led the ouster of UNC president Tom Ross. Ross was and is a capable leader who despite his competence, sterling reputation, gracious manner, and skillful guidance of the system was forced out because he also happens to be a Democrat. In a press conference that should have been broadcast on the Comedy Channel, Fennebresque said politics wasn’t a factor.

Now, apparently, Fennebresque is feeling a variety of pressures from some of his board members and from GOP politicians to get the job done. If he doesn’t, he may have to hand the chairmanship to someone more to the liking of General Assembly leaders, who install the Board of Governors members, after all.

There are favorites for the presidency among some of the those board members and politicians, but there even have been suggestions that the board ought to start its search all over again. All this, for one of the most prestigious jobs in American higher education.

And one notion being discussed is not a good omen for the university’s governance in the future: Republican leaders in the General Assembly have actually been talking about requiring the person named UNC president to be approved by the legislature.

Oh, now there’s a good idea. A great candidate is found after a long search, an esteemed leader in higher education, but one of the honorables on Jones Street finds a 10th grade essay the person wrote on Martin Luther King Jr., proclaims the candidate a liberal and demands he or she be rejected.

Yeah, that prospect will have Ivy League presidents lined up around the block trying to get the UNC job.

What legislators want, of course, is a president who will do as told. First order of business will be to fire frequent GOP critic Gene Nichol, a UNC-Chapel Hill law professor. But Nichol has tenure protection, so GOP lawmakers might even order the new president to end tenure. My guess is they might next go after UNC-Chapel Hill leaders, not because of anything they’ve done wrong, but just to show the Chapel Hill crowd they mean business. They’ll then order the new president to install all sorts of conservative think tanks throughout the system. That’ll show those liberals.

New chancellors will be vetted not for their academic and leadership credentials, but to ensure they’re rock-ribbed right wingers. (“You were a campaign driver for Ted Cruz when you were a junior at Liberty University last year? Welcome to Chapel Hill, Mr. Chancellor-designate!”)

Note to chancellor candidates: You might begin your opening statement with, “You know, the greatest regret I have is that I didn’t get to see Dick Cheney become president. And we need to stop teaching the socialism of Franklin Roosevelt, am I right?”

If you think this is all whimsical speculation, think again. The Republicans are not kidding when it comes to turning the UNC system hard right and finding a leader who’ll be happy to sit in the shotgun seat while GOP lawmakers do the driving.

That will give them immense satisfaction. But it will severely wound an institution that has long stood as a symbol of North Carolina’s greatness.

Jenkins: 919-829-4513, jjenkins@newsobserver.com