The University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors is committed to ensuring North Carolina has the best public university system in America. North Carolinians have good reason to be proud. UNC educates 220,000 students on 17 campuses. Our faculty, staff and students are engaged in scholarship, research and service that elevate the well-being of this state. We consistently rank atop lists of universities that provide the best education and best value.
At the same time, UNC faces forces that are transforming higher education. Technology is creating new models of teaching and learning. Demographic shifts are creating new kinds of students, just as new workforce needs are requiring different skills. Climbing costs and funding pressures are increasing universities’ reliance on tuition, squeezing family budgets.
To help prepare UNC for these challenges, one of the board’s important roles has always been to continually review the system’s programs, policies and leadership.
We recognize some of our recent efforts to move the University forward have generated criticism and concern for some. Our recent decision to raise tuition is as unpopular with the board as it is for the people of North Carolina, and it further illustrates the need to look closely at everything the University is doing.
As I have said previously, President Tom Ross has led the University with distinction throughout his tenure. Our decision to proceed with a leadership change had nothing to do with his performance, but simply reflects our belief that all great institutions can benefit from a change in leadership from time to time.
We will conduct a national search for the next UNC system president with great care. We intend to carry on the long tradition of selecting a president of the highest caliber to lead and build on UNC’s foundation of excellence.
As previous Boards of Governors have done, we’ll be looking for a president who demonstrates a global vision and comprehensive understanding of the technological, financial and societal forces demanding change in higher education, who appreciates the distinct needs of our 17 campuses, and who will continue to work collaboratively with the board, faculty, staff, lawmakers and other constituencies.
Finally, our comprehensive review of all UNC research centers and institutes underscores our responsibility to regularly assess the cost, value and effectiveness of all University functions.
Over the past five months, a board working group reviewed all 240 centers in an open and transparent process. We applied the same fact-based criteria to each center to evaluate its cost, financial sustainability, interdisciplinary reach and value to UNC.
Overall, we came away incredibly impressed with the value of UNC’s centers. Our review validated the work of 207 centers and recommended improvements for 13, while other centers chose to discontinue their work or are undergoing a separate review. In one case, we recommend increasing resources, adding sexual-abuse counselors at the Carolina Women’s Center.
Of all 240 centers, the board voted unanimously to close three – each with very limited resources and narrow scopes. The Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at Chapel Hill has been the primary focus of media attention.
Let me emphasize the board strongly believes reducing poverty is a crucial need in North Carolina. We believe the University must remain actively engaged in creating jobs and opportunity for everyone. Indeed, other parts of the university system are actively engaged in combating poverty, including UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work and Kenan-Flagler School of Business.
However, after careful review of the Center on Poverty – including an opportunity for the center director to fully describe its work – the board concluded the center was unable to demonstrate any appreciable impact on the issue of poverty. We concluded the center did not enhance the educational mission of UNC-Chapel Hill, did not work across disciplines to affect change, and did not have the financial support to sustain it.
Some have argued our action chilled academic freedom. That is simply not true. We encourage an open exchange of ideas – the very heart of UNC’s mission – and have no objection to the Center’s commentary on the issue of poverty, its primary activity. But we do not believe it needed the structure of a UNC center for this limited role. We fully expect the center director to continue expressing his views, and fully support his right to do so.
Each of our decisions reflects the board’s best efforts to ensure the University of North Carolina continues to provide academic excellence, while preparing us to meet the challenges of the future.
John C. Fennebresque, a Charlotte lawyer, is chairman of the UNC Board of Governors and a UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus.