University governance

By Tom Campbell - N.C. Spin

Recent actions by the UNC Board of Governors have come under question but the concerns are largely misplaced.

Many didn’t like the firing of President Tom Ross and were further angered with the hiring process for the new president, but they are called governors because they are tasked with making these decisions.

They are also responsible for setting salaries for our chancellors and state law allows them to meet in closed session to discuss personnel decisions. Our big disagreement is that they should have come out of closed session and voted publicly on those final salaries. Acting Chairman Lou Bissette promises to address this issue.

But the larger and more important discussion should focus on the governance process itself.

Before the 1971 consolidation of junior colleges and four-year degree-granting institutions into the existing UNC System we had UNC Chapel Hill, NC State and Woman’s College (now UNC Greensboro) under one governance structure. Then president Bill Friday had a 100-member board, with a much smaller executive committee, to govern the three. People across the country were constantly amazed Friday had such a large board. He responded that they weren’t just 100 people, they were THE 100 leaders of our state. When they decided something needed doing, it happened.

Friday fought vigorously with then-governor Bob Scott over the make-up of the new “system,” but more significantly with the governance structure itself, saying from the beginning that the compromise appointive process for the 32-member board was misguided and fraught with potential problems. History has proven him correct.

All members of the Board of Governors are appointed by the General Assembly to four-year terms, not because of any special expertise they might possess in higher education, in academia or in administering large organizations. They are political appointees who come to the board simply because they won favor with powerful legislators.

The Board of Governors makes decisions that affect all 16 universities, yet the individual campuses are not represented. In an ideal world one representative from each should sit on the BOG; at the least several seats should be filled by these schools so as to ensure good communications from the campuses to the governors and vice versa. The remaining selections should come from academia, from business and the professions that actually hire graduates, from science and technology, the arts and nonprofit world, students, and from recognized and seasoned community leaders. To ensure independence neither lawmakers nor the Governor should appoint the majority of members. Other states have far better processes we should consider.

To our knowledge the University System is the only entity reporting directly to the legislature, inhibiting independence by the Board of Governors. Legislators alone will decide whether or not governors get reappointed. Even though state appropriations only account for some 12 percent of the total funding lawmakers act as if they are the primary bankers, deciding which schools get new buildings and programs. Legislators like to insert themselves into the operations of this $9 billion a year operation, as we saw evidenced in the recent selection of a new system president.

Our legislature has recently reformed our tax codes, Medicaid system, highway funding and the environment but they have been blind to reforming university governance, for obvious reasons. It is time they opened their eyes to this needed reform.

Tom Campbell is the Executive Producer and Moderator of N.C. Spin.

By Tom Campbell

N.C. Spin

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