UNC Board of Governors puts a woman in charge

It shouldn't be remarkable when a woman is chosen to lead the state university system's governing board. But it's a first for North Carolina, and the state should cheer that small milestone.

Why? Fifty-one percent of the state's residents are women. Everyone benefits when the leadership of an influential board is representative of the state's make-up. It sends a message of inclusion.

Last week the 32-member University of North Carolina system Board of Governors elected Hannah Gage, a retired broadcast executive from Wilmington, to chair the board. Ms. Gage, 55, is one of its 10 woman members. In seven years she has been an active, engaged member.

That seasoning and enthusiasm make her a capable choice. Yet Ms. Gage put it well when she said her life experience, more than her gender, will inform her work as chairwoman. “I think it's significant symbolically,” she said. “But beyond that, I don't know that gender differences are significant at all when it comes to decisions made on this board.”

Don't think, however, it's not important for the state to see more diversity in the leadership of an appointed board that oversees a $6.5 billion public asset with a critical mandate: Keep tuition low tuition and academic quality high. The 17 institutions in the system are among the state's most valuable resources. The chair of the Board of Governors has the opportunity to set the agenda for how the board manages, funds and develops those resources.

Case in point: Previous chair Jim Phillips led an effort called UNC Tomorrow, which sought to identify the state's most urgent needs and align the funding, focus and long-term planning for universities with those priorities. That initiative can have far-reaching effects.

The fact is, North Carolina's universities have served as stepping stones to a better life for hundreds of thousands of Tar Heel residents. The percentage of their cost that comes from tax dollars is among the highest in the nation, thanks to a constitutional mandate to keep tuition low. That gives those resources a unique place in the state's intellectual, cultural and political life.

Leading the board that governs them is an influential job. It's good North Carolina finally has a woman in that role.