Groucho Marx said he didn’t want to belong to any club that would accept people like him as a member. And we’re not sure we want any UNC system president who’s willing to work for this Board of Governors’ club.
The circus around the University of North Carolina’s search for a new president made national headlines Friday. It came complete with an emergency meeting that may have broken state law, calls for chairman John Fennebresque’s head, allegations that a leading candidate is “fruit from a poisonous tree,” and a momentary cameo appearance by a national figure whose presence was supposed to be kept secret.
In a sane world, the UNC Board of Governors would spend its time lobbying for adequate funding, advocating for faculty, staff and students, supporting a strong system president and generally striving to keep the University of North Carolina among the top public higher education systems in the nation.
In the real world, they fire an esteemed president, botch the handling of it, insert politics into decision-making, then make the search for a new president a hot mess of infighting and finger-pointing.
Jane Stancill of the (Raleigh) News & Observer broke the news Thursday night that Fennebresque had called an emergency BOG meeting for Friday to meet with finalist Margaret Spellings. That lit up keyboards across the eastern seaboard as BOG members in town and out questioned what was going on.
Fennebresque had not given the 48 hours notice normally required of such meetings, declaring it was an emergency. What made it an emergency? Spellings’ name might get out. It quickly did, but if it hadn’t, it would have when she wandered into Friday’s public meeting before quickly being whisked back out. At least a quarter of the board said Fennebresque should resign.
The meeting also raised suspicions that the 11-member search committee favored Spellings and was trying to bypass a bill awaiting Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature requiring three finalists to be brought before the full Board of Governors. It appears that way, but given that the board dispersed after nearly five hours in closed session Friday with no comment, questions remain.
What’s clear is that the whole endeavor is in disarray. We’re not sure Spellings is the most qualified candidate. Perhaps. But she has no degree beyond an undergraduate degree from the University of Houston and has never worked at a university. Her career track was shaped by first being Gov. George W. Bush’s political director.
Even if she is the best candidate, her appointment would come under a dark cloud given the events of the past couple of days.
Fennebresque and the Board of Governors would be better off slowing down, taking a deep breath and letting a full search play out with at least three finalists brought before the full board.
In the meantime, there is an entirely capable leader, Tom Ross, already sitting in the president’s chair.