Higher ed battles seem certain to continue in 2018: Here are five to watch

Higher ed battles seem certain to continue in 2018: Here are five to watch

Last year was a tumultuous one for public higher education in North Carolina. Here are five issues to watch carefully in 2018 as all signs point to the volume of the debate going nowhere but up.

1) “Silent Sam” – The fight over the Confederate monument on UNC’s Chapel Hill campus known as “Silent Sam” has been going on for decades. But in the wake of the deadly white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, VA and the toppling of a Confederate statue in Durham, the movement to remove the controversial marker picked up momentum in 2017. Departments across the Chapel Hill campus, student, faculty and staff groups, even administrators – all called for (or suggested it’s time for) the statue to come down.

The North Carolina Historical Commission may have delayed dealing with a complicated and strangely worded law meant to prevent removal of such statues, but the UNC Board of Governors, UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and UNC President Margaret Spellings have been unable to escape the issue, which follows them into the New Year.

Dr. William Sturkey, an historian of Modern American, African American, and Southern History at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the fight is really no longer over the meaning of monuments like “Silent Sam,” but the political fallout of dealing with them.

“There is not much debate about the meaning of these monuments,” Sturkey said in a recent interview with Policy Watch. “These monuments were made by the same people who designed Jim Crow, who fought against their own country to preserve slavery. Historians believe that the monuments represent white supremacy because that’s exactly what they said when they were dedicated.”

At UNC, Sturkey said, there is simply a gap in leadership on the issue at the top that is being filled by a student movement.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been at a place where the leadership has been so interested in maintaining the status quo without taking any leadership,” Sturkey said. “At UNC, everybody seems to be incredibly afraid of what the fallout is going to be because of how politically charged the Board of Governors and the Board of Trustees are now.”

Students, faculty and staff are keeping up the pressure and plan to push for the Historical Commission to take up the issue after it has dealt with the question of Confederate statues in downtown Raleigh at its April meeting.

For now, the issue continues to divide UNC leadership and the opposition continues to grow.

2) Tension between the UNC Board of Governors and President Margaret Spellings – “Silent Sam” and the university’s reaction to the controversy was just one issue that caused tension between the UNC Board of Governors and UNC President Margaret Spellings.

A new, harder-line conservative faction on the board has consistently butted heads with Spellings, questioning how she does her job and whether more of the authority now resting with the president should be shared with the board.

The latest front in that battle: the question of whether the board should have its own staff. Spellings, to whom the general administration staff now answers, opposes creating board staff, saying it would signal another incursion onto her territory by a board that aggressively asserted its authority in 2017. Board Chairman Lou Bissette had to throw himself onto a grenade during a committee discussion on the issue, making the unusual decision to cast a vote himself to keep the question from coming to the full board.

Despite that, a number of the board’s more conservative members say they’d like to revisit the issue and say they plan to bring it up again in 2018.

3) Moving the UNC General Administration out of Chapel Hill – Another source of conflict and tension on the Board of Governors: a proposal to move the UNC system General Administration, run by Spellings, out of its home base in Chapel Hill.

The UNC General Administration consists of 260-plus UNC system staff members with an annual budget of $65.4 million. They report to 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.

Spellings has been vocal in her skepticism about the idea.

“Why now?” Spellings asked of the move in October. “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?”

Shayna Hill, chair of the UNC Employee Forum, agrees.

“What sense does it make?” Hill said in an interview with Policy Watch this week. “Where is the data to show that it’s beneficial and for what reasons? Making sweeping changes like that, it needs to be data driven and not emotionally driven.”

The argument most often used to justify moving the staff is that it would provide for better “branding” not to have the UNC system and UNC-Chapel Hill headquartered in the same place. But faculty, staff and administrators say the Board of Governors’ antipathy toward the politically liberal area shouldn’t lead them to spend a lot of money and disrupt peoples’ lives with such a move.

“There are real problems,” Hill said. “Don’t spend money moving the General Administration. Spend the money on improving the life of UNC workers.”

4) Tuition at UNC Schools – The cost of higher education remains a problem nationwide – as does the question of what to do about it. Between 2011 and 2016, in-state students in the UNC system saw an increase in tuition and fees of about 20 percent.

Last year, the General Assembly approved the NC Promise tuition program – a plan that reduced tuition to $500 per semester at three UNC system schools: Elizabeth City State University, UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina University. The plan was controversial among some professors, staff and administrators. They raised questions about several issues, including the state’s failure to make up for the lost revenue, the perceived value of a degree, and what it would mean for the schools’ reputations to suddenly and explicitly become “value” universities.

Two historically Black colleges – Winston-Salem State and Fayetteville State – opted out.

The program will be implemented in the fall semester. If successful, members of the Board of Governors, Spellings and legislative leaders say they’d like to see it expand.

5) Free speech – Last month, the Board of Governors passed a new campus speech policy without a full board discussion and with little fanfare. The new policy has plenty of critics from across the political spectrum – most of whom worry it will be misused to target speech critical of the policies of the board and UNC leadership.

This year, the rubber seems likely meet the road as the policy goes into effect and the system and individual campuses struggle with how to implement it.

Faculty, staff and students have not been shy about their opposition to the new policy.

“In my opinion it’s a slap in the face from the General Assembly,” said Kathy Ramsey, vice chair of both the Employee Forum and the Carolina Black Caucus. “It’s a slap in the face especially to Carolina, on top of what they’ve done to the Civil Rights Center and the Poverty Center. It’s another intimidation tactic.”