Recently introduced legislation aimed at reducing the size of the UNC Board of Governors from 32 to 24 members is likely to worsen many existing problems with the board. Every North Carolinian concerned about the quality of public higher education should urge their representatives to oppose the flawed and politically suspect House Bill 39.
For many decades, advocates of good governance have warned of the dangers inherent in North Carolina’s practice of giving the legislature the power to appoint BOG members. Only one other state, New York, has a similar arrangement.
When the Democrat-controlled legislature created the UNC system in 1971, then-UNC President Bill Friday predicted, rightly, that lawmakers would repeatedly interfere in University affairs, ignoring checks and balances required for good governance. In 2005, the conservative Pope Center for Higher Education Policy commissioned a report noting lawmakers’ partiality toward BOG nominees who focused on representatives’ electoral rather than the state’s broader public interests. And in 2006, the centrist North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research observed that the BOG appointment process had become so badly distorted by partisan wrangling that campaign donors, lobbyists and former politicians were often given preference over better qualified nominees.
The Democrats’ disdain for wise restraint, prioritizing partisan over public interests, and political cronyism, should have incentivized Republicans to end the debasement of University governance. Instead, since 2013 we have witnessed a retaliatory intensification of efforts to cozen, coerce and corrupt those responsible for University governance.
When in 2014 and 2015 the board closed politically incorrect academic research and service centers, dismissed a politically displeasing UNC president, and tightened up leadership control of president and chancellor searches, the legislature was certainly pleased. But when the BOG search for a new president – and, later, the new president herself – proved a bit more difficult to control, the legislature cracked down.
By mid-2015, the General Assembly moved to usurp (in SB670) the BOG’s authority to independently conduct executive searches and trimmed the terms of BOG appointees, while also demanding that the board turn over records of its executive salary deliberations.
The overreach increased in 2016. In HB2, lawmakers specifically targeted the University’s board-enacted nondiscrimination policy. In HB1030, they vacated numerous existing statutes, and expropriated the University’s authority over admissions, tuition, student fees, financial aid, faculty authority over academic research and service centers, and the management of Schools of Education.
More recently, in an unprecedented opportunistic attack against the last vestige of 210 years of executive branch participation in University management, the legislature stripped away (in HB17) the governor’s authority to make a few appointments to campus boards of trustees, vesting that power in – wait for it – the Speaker of the House and the Senate President Pro Tempore.
This, then, is the context North Carolinians have to consider when they assess the wisdom of downsizing the BOG. To be sure, a smaller board might be a more efficient board, but if the efficiency gained is merely the ease with which the legislature lords over public higher education in this state, most citizens might agree that making the board smaller is not worth considering until the legislature ends its hyper-partisan dominance of UNC governance.
Stephen Leonard is the immediate past chair of the UNC system Faculty Assembly. Email: email@example.com