UNC system faculty decry presidential search process

UNC Board of Governors members informally talk among themselves before the start of an emergency meeting of the UNC Board of Governors on the SAS campus in Cary Friday, October 16, 2015.
UNC Board of Governors members informally talk among themselves before the start of an emergency meeting of the UNC Board of Governors on the SAS campus in Cary Friday, October 16, 2015.

Faculty leaders in the UNC system said they have been ignored during the process of the UNC presidential search, and they warn that the next leader will face a trust deficit right off the bat.

In a statement Thursday, the UNC system's Faculty Assembly said the secretive search process has cut out the participation of professors and staff — key constituents who have not had the opportunity to meet with and discuss important issues with the candidate. The leading candidate is Margaret Spellings, former U.S. education secretary for President George W. Bush. The new president will be named on Friday.

"The faculty will not prejudge the commitment of new President to the well-being of the University," the statement said. "But he or she must understand that the secretive character of this search, and his or her own indifference to consulting with staff and faculty when s/he was an active candidate for the position, will make it difficult to win the confidence and trust of the University community."

The statement was signed by Stephen Leonard, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor and chair of the assembly, and Gabriel Lugo, UNC Wilmington professor and chair-elect of the group.

The search for a successsor to UNC President Tom Ross has been messy and contentious. Board members not on the search committee have complained about being excluded, and several have called for board chairman John Fennebresque to step aside. The legislature also took the rare step of forcing parameters on the search, with a bill that required the search committee to submit three finalists' names to the full board for consideration. That bill has not been signed into law yet by Gov. Pat McCrory; legislative leaders sent a letter to the board last week, reminding them of the new legislation.

Last Friday, the board met with Spellings behind closed doors, and also apparently was given the names of three other candidates who did not appear at the gathering.

Faculty leaders had asked repeatedly to meet with finalists, and faculty representatives have shown up outside closed door search committee meetings for months.

Joan MacNeill, chair of the search committee had promised the Faculty Assembly leaders that she would pass along their request to the finalists. But no meeting was ever scheduled.

One candidate — presumably Spellings — met with McCrory at the governor's mansion in what was described by a spokesman as "a wonderful conversation about the interactions between the governor's office and the university system with regard to technology and research development, job recruitment, and the Education Cabinet, which the governor chairs."

The Faculty Assembly statement said the failure by the board to seek the advice of faculty and staff "is both shortsighted and troubling."

It further said the faculty have "faithfully advised" the board on issues such as admissions, tuition, financial aid, leadership appointment processes, curricular design, research and freedom of inquiry and peer review. "Yet the Board has repeatedly refused to acknowledge — let alone discuss — points of counsel they have been offered," the statement said. "Instead, they have frequently promulgated ill-advised policies and practices that have proven detrimental to the best interests of public higher education in this state."

The firing of Ross, the professors said, was "the most egregious in a long train of problematic governance actions" that have "brought the future of the University into doubt."

The next president must put forth the effort to seek advice and counsel from the faculty, the statement said.

"Over the years, the most effective and respected leaders of the University system and its respective campuses have argued that their success is contingent on the support of staff and faculty," the professors' statement said. "We now appear to hae entered an era when it is not support, but an ill-informed indifference, that defines how governing authorities in the University think of their relationship to those who carry out the core mission of public higher education."

The UNC system board's personnel committee is set to meet Thursdayafternoon to review the salary package and employment terms of the next president.