This week the recently downsized UNC Board of Governors (BoG) has its annual retreat in Asheville. That meeting may be critical for answering a question with which every North Carolinian should be concerned: Can this board restore public confidence in non-partisan oversight of North Carolina’s public higher education system, or will fewer voices strengthen the BoG’s fealty to the legislative ruling party, and further corrupt university governance?
There have been many times this question has been asked during the history of the university, but this time the very legitimacy of a UNC degree may be at stake. The excess has reached the point that the president of the regional college accreditation commission, SACS-COC, has been asked to counsel the board on the basics of good governance.
Since 1805 when the Jeffersonian Republicans (later, Democrats) used budget shenanigans to force the submission of the UNC Board, every political party has followed the Democrats in trying to make the university bend to the dictates of party rule.
Most of these efforts were turned aside by the skilled counsel of university leaders, and the wise restraint of good statesmanship. But today, radicals in the legislature and their supporters on the BoG have swept aside decades of tradition, legal precedent, and established principles of good educational governance. The extremism in this case, however, even goes beyond party affiliation. News reports from the last few years demonstrate that one-party rule has been supplanted by dogmas of narrow ideological conformity.
In what can only be described as a barely disguised contempt for other Republicans appointed to the BoG, and the Republican university president they hired, the legislature and its fawners on the board have repeatedly used feats of statutory chicanery and the manipulation of bully pulpits to undermine much of the BoG’s governance autonomy. They also have obstructed and publicly disparaged the actions of the president and campus chancellors, and usurped the management of admissions, tuition, research centers, education schools, campus conduct policies, nondiscrimination practices, and public service institutes.
The danger of partisan corruption in university governance is that it puts ideological conformity before the public good. Bad governance ties the hands of faculty to teach, study and serve the public good. It obstructs the ability of campus administrators to promote the effective management of their institutions, and it prevents the president of the university and her staff from guiding the system using expertise, good arguments, and promising innovations that will keep UNC one of the best public higher education systems in the world.
Whether the UNC Board of Governors can reclaim, as the enacting legislation for the board demands, its “responsibility of serving the best interests of the whole state,” remains to be seen.
That may make this week in Asheville a quiet, but nonetheless significant, moment in the history of UNC.
Stephen Leonard is the immediate past chair of the UNC system Faculty Assembly.