In the last few months the UNC Board of Governors has proposed a lot of controversial moves for the university system.
One of the latest might be the most perplexing – even to members of the board itself.
The proposal: move the entire UNC General Administration out of its traditional home on the Chapel Hill campus.
The reason: Well…it’s complicated.
The UNC General Administration consists of about 265 UNC system staff members with an annual budget of $65.4 million. They report to UNC System president Margaret Spellings and are responsible for a wide range of duties, including long-range planning, research, legal and student affairs, financial management, government relations and administrative oversight of things like the UNC Press and UNC-TV.
Last month, after a series of public dust-ups with Spellings, the board of governors convened a committee to examine the purpose of the general administration, with an eye toward some changes. Chaired by former Republican legislator Bob Rucho, the committee kicked off a series of discussions that came to fruition at the full board meeting earlier this month. The proposed changes are likely to reemerge at the board’s December 15 meeting.
Among them: a controversial proposal for the board to hire its own staff and the idea of moving the General Administration.
Spellings opposed the board hiring its own staff, seeing it as an intrusion into her operation of the system and its employees. Enough board members – including board Chairman Louis Bissette – sided with her to kill the idea in committee. But several board members – most part of a more aggressively conservative wing of the board – say they intend to bring it up again.
During a discussion of moving the system’s core administrative staff at an October task force meeting, Spellings unloaded a series of her own questions.
“Why now?” Spellings asked of the move. “What are the advantages to the university, to our strategic plan goals, to the need to educate more students better and more affordably, more rapidly and to high quality levels? How will this make the university’s work different? Will it be enhanced or strengthened? If so, in what ways?”
A number of board members expressed the same skepticism at November’s full board meeting.
But board member Marty Kotis stands behind the idea, even suggesting Durham as a potential site for a new and improved general administration building.
Right now, different parts of the general administration staff operate out of a number of buildings, including three at Chapel Hill and two at Research Triangle Park.
Kotis, a real estate developer from Greensboro, said consolidating all offices into a new facility could actually create efficiencies. It could lead to greater cooperation with the staffs of the Community College system and K-12 education system, he said, which is a goal of the board.
“What if they were all in the same building somewhere?” Kotis said. “Wouldn’t that promote greater communication in all of the education silos?”
Durham may be an ideal spot for that sort of site, Kotis said.
“I’m a real estate guy,” Kotis said. “So what I thought about when touring [NC Central University] is Central is a little isolated from downtown Durham. There’s a gap. Durham has made a pretty good resurgence but it could use some more TLC. With the light rail line coming through there you could hit two of the campuses, if not three, with the light rail system. So that was one thought. Also, it could help revitalize that area and really show some appreciation for our HBCUs and could help transform that campus, that area of Durham and help change that city. It’s not going to change the trajectory of Chapel Hill at all.”
The most often-cited reason to move the staff among board members hasn’t been efficiency, though – it’s been “branding.”
At both the October committee meeting and November’s full board meeting, members discussed a perception that having the general administration staff in Chapel Hill confuses the UNC system and UNC-Chapel Hill. It also makes it look as though the Chapel Hill campus is superior to the other schools, they said.
“That’s a very minor part of this, but it’s still a consideration,” Kotis admits. “Are we the Board of Governors for the UNC Chapel Hill or the UNC system? What does it say about the link between UNCGA and Chapel Hill? Is it the favorite school? It’s like having your house near one kid’s house but not the other.”
Moving outside of the cities of Raleigh, Chapel Hill or Durham wouldn’t be feasible, Kotis said – there are hundreds of employees who need to be able to commute to any new site from their current home in the Triangle area. But the greatest argument for keeping it in Chapel Hill is simply tradition – and that’s not good enough.
“We need to be asking ‘why not’ instead of asking ‘why?’” Kotis said. “If the answer is “that’s how it’s always been,’ that’s not a real answer.”
No one has yet offered a serious estimate of what it might cost to find or build new buildings for the General Administration staff and move the entire operation to a new site. But Kotis said the cost would likely be minor as compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on new stadiums, recreation centers and dorms throughout the UNC system.
“This has a cost component, but it also has an efficiency component,” Kotis said. “I’m not sure that’s the case with a lot of the things we’re throwing around tens and hundreds of millions of dollars on like it’s nothing. And this isn’t a stadium or a rec center. This is trying to break through the silos of education.”
Kotis said he believes the idea may be encountering resistance simply because it comes from the Board of Governors.
The board’s largely Republican political appointees have been accused of acting with political motives – and this move is no different.
Aside from Spellings’ skepticism, a number of UNC system staffers say the plan is not popular among the rank and file in the General Administration, but in the current political climate, few want to speak out against it publicly while it’s still just a germ of an idea.
Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said it’s not uncommon for boards to make dramatic moves to put their own stamp on a university system.
Moving a system’s general administration staff is a lot less inflammatory than changes that involve questions of academic freedom and freedom of speech, he said – both issues the UNC Board of Governors have wrestled with recently. But there is the danger of a political subtext to the action that has to be acknowledged, he said.
“There is always a subtext to things,” Nassirian said. But the thing about subtext is that it’s highly susceptible to interpretation.”
Board member William Webb cut through a lot of that subtext with a comment at a task force meeting earlier this month.
“If this is something the legislature wants, it’ll happen,” Webb said. “If it’s not, it won’t.”