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New UNC board chairman Ramsey tackles finances, student fees, and campus leadership

Randy Ramsey, chairman of the University of North Carolina System's Board of Governors, addresses the board Feb. 21, 2020. (UNC-TV screen shot)
Randy Ramsey, chairman of the University of North Carolina System's Board of Governors, addresses the board Feb. 21, 2020. (UNC-TV screen shot)

In October 2019, Beaufort businessman Randy Ramsey was unanimously elected chairman of the University of North Carolina System’s Board of Governors. 

He’s had an eventful few months at the helm. 

Ramsey, president of boat-building company Jarrett Bay Boatworks, was named to the board in 2017 and became vice chair in 2018. As the successor of the board’s contentious former chairman, Harry Smith, Ramsey’s job has been akin to steadying a ship in turbulent waters.  

It hasn’t been easy. So far, the new chairman has steered the board through controversy over Confederate monument Silent Sam, a scandal involving members of the East Carolina University Board of Trustees, and financial uncertainty across UNC’s 17 campuses after the General Assembly in January failed to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the new state budget. 

Despite headline grabbing controversies, the board should remain focused on good governance and public policy, Ramsey has said. 

On Feb. 19, Ramsey sat down with Carolina Journal Assistant Managing Editor Kari Travis to discuss rising tuition and fees, nontraditional education, the search for a new system president, and the role of the BOG in campus affairs, among other things. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

KT: As the leader of UNC’s board, it’s somewhat unusual you don’t have a four-year degree. Since you’re a community college graduate, your position lends itself to support for education outside the traditional university. In what ways is the UNC system opening these opportunities for the more nontraditional student, particularly as a partner with community colleges?

RR: I really believe we’ve got to find a way for our K-12, community colleges, and university system to work closer together. I think we miss a lot of opportunities because we don’t communicate as often as we should. I’ve often said I wished that all three [systems] were based in the same building, and share the same coffee pot or the same water cooler so [staffers] run into each other and could [trade] ideas about how we could improve the system. … One of the things I keep hearing from the people across the state is that the university isn’t nimble enough. That if we need to train a person to do a job for IBM, [a UNC school] might take several years to get that done. But the community college can get that done in months. One of the ways I would like to see us work more closely [with community colleges] is for specific workforce needs. [I’d like to] find ways that maybe community colleges can start on the path a couple of years early, and the university can help finish that degree for that person, or even [help that person] go on to earn a secondary degree.

KT: Mandatory student fees are nearly as costly as resident tuition at some UNC schools. N.C. A&T’s yearly fees are equal to 85% of its annual resident tuition bill. At the three UNC schools with cut-rate tuition under NC Promise, fees are more than double the $1,000 per year resident tuition bill. Is this fair to the student in terms of cost transparency? What measures should be in place to make sure we’re up front with students about what they’re actually paying? 

RR: … Higher education as free as practicable is something that we all take very seriously, and it’s something our legislature has always taken very seriously. You can see that in the funding models they’ve always provided for higher education for our state. Now, over the last four years, tuition has been raised about 1.4%, and fees have raised about 2.2%. It appears on the surface that it’s been outpacing tuition pretty dramatically, but in reality it’s only about a point over the last four years. 

I’m often asked why tuition and fees aren’t put together. But … tuition is seen as state funds. Basically, we need the state to give it back to us. Whereas the fees are not [state funds]. The fees can be used for a variety of other things. Student activities. Medical services. Things we don’t heavily provide for in the standard tuition. 

I am concerned that people don’t understand how much those fees are, even though each campus has the information readily available for each student. The real number that’s important, I think, is not what the tuition is, not what the fee is, but [what the] total cost of attendance is. And that is very easy information to come by if people are willing to [look for] it. But I think that we, as an entire university, have to do a better job of … making it very clear the estimated total cost of attendance at N.C. State University [for residents] is $26,000 per year. 

KT: What is the UNC board doing to address rising student costs, especially in the fee category? 

RR: Something that you need to understand is that our board members are not sitting by idly with this. I’ve had some of the most spirited conversations about this in the last month that I’ve ever had in my life. And [board members] want to understand what the [fee] money is for. … Our board members are asking, “Are the services we’re providing essential to the education of the individuals here? Is it important enough to spend that money on?”

Many of our board members, including me, are not sure of that. So I think we’ve got to find out, ‘OK, did you go to [this] university because it has two student unions? Did you go there because it has these kinds of dining facilities? Did you go because it has very high-end housing? Why?’ Because we hear people say that we have to have all these amenities to attract students. Maybe they’re right. But our board is not going to sit idly by and take that answer. Our board is very focused on, ‘Tell me exactly why this is.’ 

KT: What are your thoughts on a frozen tuition/fee model like the one used by Purdue University President Mitch Daniels since 2013? Would this model be feasible for UNC? Why, or why not? 

RR: Well, so to some extent, we’ve done that with tuition. So, we’ve got fixed tuition for eight semesters for an incoming freshman. If they graduate on time they can plan on tuition being that amount of money. I think that’s a step toward trying to freeze the cost going forward.

You know, I think Mitch Daniels is an extremely bright individual, and I really like the things he’s doing. [But] Purdue’s model isn’t exactly like ours, and I think that consequently there should be some discussion there about how we do that. Some universities run on 40% to 45% out-of-state tuition, whereas here in North Carolina we’re capped at 18%. That’s a lot of money. There’s a big funding gap there. Some universities in the Southeast are using that [out-of-state tuition] to fill their funding shortfalls. 

KT: What is the role of members of the UNC Board of Governors in the activities of individual campuses? When is it appropriate to intervene at the university level? 

RR: Our policies have very strict guardrails on what the roles of the Boards of Trustees are, and what the role of the Board of Governors is. … Most of the Boards of Trustees need to understand they’re advisory boards with very limited authority. And authority is at the level of the Board of Governors. … Those Boards of Trustees are incredibly important to those campuses and to advising our chancellors. But we also need to understand that the chancellor doesn’t work for the Board of Trustees. He works for the system. And I think that gets lost on occasion. And when it does get lost, that’s where things start to go wrong on a trustee level. Because the hierarchy is broken. And we’re changing that. 

So, when is it inappropriate for us to intervene? I think it’s appropriate for the board itself to intervene when you get into an egregious situation where the code is obviously broken, and some of those trustees have broken the trust of the university, the alumni of that university, and the students. … My job is not to call [UNC interim President] Bill Roper every day and ask him what he had for breakfast and what he’s going to do today. I think our board needs to be concentrated on governance. On better policies. On how to find problems with our policy — which we may have recently done just that — and tighten it up. … Just turning a blind eye is not going to work anymore. 

KT: The June 2020 deadline for President Roper’s departure is approaching. How can the public trust that the search for a new system president is thorough — especially when they’re blocked from viewing it? 

RR: Yes, so [BOG Vice Chairwoman] Wendy Murphy and I are co-chairing the presidential search. We have a very good team of people helping us. … We’ve done a lot of listening sessions and surveys. … And I’m telling you, we truly listened. We let [people] pepper us, and some of the people weren’t very enthusiastic about the process. But they came and talked to us and understood who we’re looking for. And I’ve said over and over that [the new president] doesn’t have to be an academic. It doesn’t have to be a business person. It doesn’t have to be an astronaut. The person we’re looking for is a person that checks all those boxes. Someone who’s already been very successful in their life. The person we hire is already going to have a job. And I hope that people believe the person we’re going to hire would not be hired if we had a very public search. Because it would endanger the position they’re currently in, and possibly their employment, depending on how high profile that person is. … We just want someone that loves the state of North Carolina. We want someone who is committed to coming here and tackling challenges.

I believe this is the most important thing our board will do. And if we can set the proper tone, we will change the face of our university going forward in a positive way.