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A downshift for the Bowles Express?

Erskine Bowles has walked on water longer than many expected as president of the University of North Carolina system.

For the two years, eight months he's had that job, the sky has been the limit. He's rolled out sweeping changes for the system and put them in place rapid-fire. He's also brought back gunny sacks full of cash for higher education from the state legislature.

But his most recent talk to the UNC Board of Governors suggested a downshift for the big-thinking, fast-moving Bowles Express.

A shift in direction

“For years the focus has been on growth, and keeping pace with growth,” he told the board when he laid out his priorities for what universities would accomplish in a new academic year.

“We've known all along we were stretching our infrastructure … that we're exposed on back-office issues – support, accounting, compliance, others.

“We must face up to these issues and we will,” Bowles said. “I promise you we will fix them … I will get you the resources to fix them.”

What? Work on infrastructure and operations? Beef up staff support, accounting, human resources and other invisible, but critical, pieces of our universities?

What's going on here?

That pledge came halfway down Bowles' lengthy list of tasks for 2008-2009. All were familiar, ambitious initiatives kicked off in previous years and now ready to put in place.

None are particularly glamorous. Yet all have the potential to remake the face of North Carolina's universities in permanent ways: tougher admission standards, accountability measures, lining up spending on programs with the state's urgent needs, full-service online education.

Now, a return to basics.

What gives?

One mess after the other

Bowles' stock remains high with politicians. He guides a devoted UNC Board of Governors.

But his administration has confronted one mess after the other at the state's 16 campuses. Most reflect a failure in leadership on individual campuses. Many – the large majority – also reflect a failure of financial oversight and processes.

Almost all of the problems took root long before Bowles lead the system. But he has had to fix them.

The latest – an unauthorized, unaccredited satellite campus of N.C. Central University in an Atlanta church run by an alumnus, campus trustee and donor – is an inexcusable (and potentially costly) embarrassment.

“We have to take steps to see that this never, ever happens again,” Bowles said last week after telling the Board of Governors that North Carolina must repay the federal government for financial aid received by students enrolled at the campus. That program slipped through the cracks – big time. The NCCU trustees did not approve it. Bowles' administration did not approve it. The UNC Board of Governors did not approve it. An investigation is under way.

A shock of cold water?

That shock of cold water stings – but it ought to. North Carolina's university system is a $6.5 billion enterprise. It needed what Bowles brought: big-picture leadership bent on strategic change. But it has to get its house in order, and that's a risky shift for Bowles. Basics are a hard sell in the legislature.

Hannah Gage, chairing her first Board of Governors meeting, echoed Bowles' message.

“Now may be the time to tap on the brakes,” she said.

“As members of this board we have the obligation to fix these problems. That will require putting aside individual interests and competing interests and do what's best for all.”