Tough times for UNC system

The Observer editorial board

John Fennebresque
John Fennebresque

“Anybody got any complaints?”

That was the question one member of the University of North Carolina system’s board of governors jokingly asked Thursday as he looked out over the audience before a committee meeting cranked up.

It’s easy to see why he’d ask. The board has been pelted with angry complaints and impassioned denunciations since last month, when it moved to oust Tom Ross, the well-regarded president of the 17-campus system.

On Friday, the second day of its two-day meeting at UNC Charlotte, the board is expected to wade back into its other big controversy of the still-new year: a study panel’s recommendation that the system close policy and research centers on biodiversity at East Carolina, social change at N.C. Central, and poverty at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Judging from the tenor of BOG members’ comments Thursday, the uproar over Ross’ ouster and the outcry over closing the centers have left board members feeling misjudged.

Even as they pushed ahead with their policy changes, they kept explaining at every turn that they had no dark motives, just the greater good in mind.

They took a preliminary vote to add board of governors’ appointees to university chancellor search committees. But before they did, members took pains to point out that they’re not trying to muscle in on individual campuses’ search processes.

“We’re not even coming close to taking over the search,” said the board’s chairman, Charlotte lawyer John Fennebresque.

Later, they passed a preliminary vote to update the selection process for picking the system’s president. But that wasn’t about rigging the game to find someone who can pass whatever secret litmus test Ross couldn’t pass.

It was, as board member Joan MacNeill said, just a long-overdue policy update aimed at producing a transparent search and landing the best-qualified candidate.

It’s hard to take their assurances at face value. Ross’ ouster remains mystifying. And the centers recommended for closure all tend to focus on progressive-friendly causes.

Plus, it’s not just those centers. Board members are recommending campuses address “issues” at 16 others, and they also suggest “close monitoring” at nine centers focused on coastal and marine science.

The tensions between the state’s political and university leadership mirrors the situation in Wisconsin.

There, potential GOP presidential hopeful Scott Walker has riled university leaders by proposing millions in cuts, telling professors to work harder and taking an aborted stab at changing the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement from a “search for truth” to “meeting the state’s workforce needs.”

That kind of toxic relationship between political and university leaders hurts a state.

The UNC system, like any institution, can benefit from periodic study. But the Board of Governors is overreaching. It is politicizing and micromanaging what has long been arguably the best public university system in the South, if not the nation.

The board needs to take all the uproar of recent weeks as evidence that it ought to rethink its approach. Calling off the rest of its research center study would be a good place to start.