Opinion: Carolina Beat

No. 920: UNC Governance Scrutinized

In one of his earliest political speeches in 1964, Ronald Reagan said, “No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”

Reagan’s point was that governmental structures hardly ever are abolished. That is pertinent when considering the University of North Carolina Board of Governors. At 32 members, it is the largest state university governing board in the nation.

Last year, the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, in conjunction with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, released a study written by Phyllis Palmiero, an expert in the administration of higher education. That paper, “Governance in the Public Interest,” concluded among other things that the UNC BOG is too large and ought to be selected by the governor rather than through the legislative process.

In September, a new study on UNC governance was released by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research titled “The Statewide UNC Board of Governors: Its Selection, Powers and Relationship to the 16 Local Campus Boards of Trustees.” Independently, the study arrived at some of the same conclusions that Palmiero did.

Central to the governance problem is the method by which the BOG is elected. Both reports say the political nature of the system is undesirable. The NCCPPR reported that between 1995 and 2000, BOG members gave $425,720 to candidates in legislative races, suggesting money and influence trump knowledge about higher education. Many members are lobbyists in their professional careers.

“However, over the last four legislative sessions, the process has increasingly been marked by squabbles between the two political parties and by an increasing desire for control of the process by the Senate and House leadership that leaves little role for the Senate and House as a whole or their committees,” the NCCPPR report says.

During the 2005 appointment process, leaders in both chambers circumvented state laws outlining how members to the BOG are to be elected.

“Governance in the Public Interest” suggests that the governor make all appointments to the BOG as well as campus boards of trustees. That is how the system works in many other states. Explaining her position, Palmiero wrote, “The governor is elected by all the people of the state and it is his responsibility to put forth a coherent vision of the needs of the state. As a single elected official, he can be held accountable.”

The NCCPPR report differs in its recommendation, advocating that the governor appoint 24 of 32 members, with the state House and Senate confirming the governor’s appointments. Still, the governor would be in a position to choose a majority and fill those seats with people who are committed to his vision.

There is also a question about the size of the BOG. Palmerio favors a reduction to 15 members. She says the large number of board members gives committees on the board excessive power, and as a result, makes the full BOG meeting a “rubber stamp” of committee decisions. “A smaller board would facilitate a focus on central issues, allow thorough discussion, and increase each member’s accountability,” she wrote.

NCCPPR does not want to reduce the size of the BOG. In fact, it wants to give voting status to the student representative, thereby increasing the effective size of the board. NCCPPR says doing so would “assure a connection between the Board and its chief customers or consumers—the more than 190,000 students in the 16-campus system.” It’s questionable how valuable adding the student vote to the BOG would be.

With these reports on the table, is it possible that will we see some changes made by the General Assembly in January? Under the current structure, the legislature has all the power—appropriation, oversight, and appointment. No matter how persuasive the case for change, it is hard to see the legislators relinquishing some of their authority unless they are strongly pressured to do so.

Shannon Blosser is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.