Opinion: Daily Journal

‘The university of the people’

McCorkle Place at UNC Chapel Hill, where the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam stood for more than a century. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
McCorkle Place at UNC Chapel Hill, where the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam stood for more than a century. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

Since January 2016, the University of North Carolina system has had two “permanent” presidents and two interim leaders (including current Interim President Dr. Bill Roper).

In recent months, UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt left in a huff, taking the Confederate memorial “Silent Sam” down on her way out. East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton resigned his post after months of discussion, talks he said he didn’t initiate. Western Carolina University seemed to have a chancellor in place, but the hiring was derailed because a UNC Board of Governors member said the top candidate falsified his resume. (This is hotly disputed.)

Meantime, the system’s board has faced a barrage of negative publicity. It includes:

  • a letter signed by more than 200 supporters of Staton by a prestigious group of ECU alumni, donors, and community leaders urging the Board of Governors to keep Staton in Greenville
  • the formation of Reform UNC System Governance, a group of more than 1,600 UNC system alumni — including former trustees, Board of Governors members, and an ex-chancellor of UNC Chapel Hill — chastising the current Board of Governors’ for “meddling and micromanaging” in campus business.
  •  an op-ed in the News & Observer, the state’s largest newspaper, with former UNC President Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and former Charlotte mayor and gubernatorial nominee Richard Vinroot, a Republican, claiming the Board of Governors is excessively partisan and exercises “heavy-handed oversight.”

Some of the shots have come from the inside. BOG member Steve Long and outgoing ECU trustees Chairman Kieran Shanahan have singled out BOG Chairman Harry Smith.

Long issued a scathing public statement saying Smith frequently harassed former system President Margaret Spellings and ran Staton out of Greenville. (Long later apologized for publicly criticizing Smith but didn’t take back the harsh language.)

Shanahan also told WITN News Smith forced out Staton, telling trustees ECU would lose state funding if the chancellor wasn’t removed.

To quote “Blazing Saddles”: What in the wide world of sports is going on here?

The UNC board and its backers dismiss any talk of turmoil. Smith admits vigorous discussions take place privately. But in public, the board speaks with one voice. Everyone’s on the same page.

We’ve heard the process described as “turning over the trash cans.” Intentional disruption. A new leadership team asserting its control.

The board and campus leaders point to a list of accomplishments. Graduation rates improving faster than the national average. Enrollment growth. Tuition freezes for incoming freshmen, caps on fee increases, and the $500-per-semester NC Promise program for in-state students at three UNC schools. Rescuing Elizabeth City State University from financial ruin.

The good news isn’t getting reported, they say. Any discord is limited to a small, noisy minority. Besides, fiscal conservatives should cheer changes that improve efficiency and keep the costs to taxpayers reasonable.

But even the good news is often overtaken by backbiting and personality clashes.

Leaders in the General Assembly seem pleased with what’s going on at UNC, appointing board members who back the current regime to new terms. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, recently said change always makes some people unhappy.

Still, plenty of prominent North Carolinians — not just “wacky liberal professors” or a handful of malcontents — aren’t happy.

The University of North Carolina isn’t a failing commercial enterprise requiring a hostile takeover. It’s a massive public enterprise, beloved by millions of people in North Carolina and around the world.

Its board should operate under rules of disclosure and transparency, which apply to all government entities. It should try to gain the trust and support of a much broader audience than the one on Jones Street. Faculty members. Alumni. Donors. Community leaders.

Without that trust, those supporters could set aside their frustration and anger and instead stop caring. Apathy eventually would destroy some of our state’s most venerated institutions.

In other words, those in charge of the UNC System should lead, not rule.

This editorial appears in the April 2019 print edition of Carolina Journal.