Change comes again to the UNC system, but not to the Board of Governors

Change comes again to the UNC system, but not to the Board of Governors

Everyone’s taking a powder in the UNC system these days.

Everyone, it seems, but the powerful individuals on the UNC Board of Governors, an onerously large pack of political hell-raisers and right-wingers who’ve sullied the “crown jewel,” North Carolina’s decorated and bedeviled university system.

Whatever you think of Cecil Staton, an ex-Georgia lawmaker turned ECU chancellor whose tortured political history threatened to overshadow his academic pedigree, his departure this week is a disaster, an unofficial sacking that smells malodorously like some kind of coup.

“He needs to be replaced,” board member Steven Long, the panel’s liaison to ECU, fumed to Policy Watch Monday. Remarkably, Long wasn’t speaking about Staton, he was speaking of Staton’s erstwhile boss, Board of Governors chairman and ECU alumnus Harry Smith. Long accused Smith, a Republican businessman, of settling a “personal vendetta” in Staton’s ouster, one Long dates back to Smith’s foul-smelling 2016 attempt to strike a real estate deal with East Carolina leaders for student housing.

Staton’s departure was not a termination, a UNC spokesman said Monday, it was a resignation, negotiated by interim system president and man-facing-an-impossible-job, Bill Roper. For his part, Smith denied any grudge against Staton, who also clashed with athletics boosters at the Greenville school and stepped knee-deep in controversy when the school bought a $1.3 million chancellor’s residence.

Of course, if Staton’s abrupt exodus was voluntary, it’s news to Staton, who carefully acknowledged as much during a press conference Monday morning.

“I did not initiate this,” Staton told reporters, before coyly noting that he’d signed a non-disparagement clause with the university system.

If only members of the Board of Governors had signed the same clause.

Change isn’t always a bad thing, defenders of the board might say. But defending this rudderless board is akin to vouching for a hurricane’s capacity to push back encroaching real estate on the shoreline, or a wildfire’s ravenous clearing of a forest, so abrasive have this board’s politics been.

The system’s torpid handling of “Silent Sam” – a calamitous chapter for the board if there ever was one – sped UNC Chancellor Carol Folt on her way, but the board bears responsibility for Margaret Spellings’ early exit too.

In recent weeks, Margaret Spellings, Carol Folt, and Cecil Staton have parted ways with the UNC system.

If there’s a common refrain about this board – appointed entirely by the state legislature – it’s that members micromanage and politicize academia in the 17-campus system. It’s that the system’s leadership doesn’t understand the educators and academics they’re charged with leading, or worse yet, they don’t care to understand.

The UNC system’s faculty is no horse to be brought to bear. Many are world-respected experts and leaders in their fields, individuals who have brought distinction to the system and the state. Their accomplishments will be recalled for decades, long after this partisan board’s legacy dims.

We’d be remiss to assume or imply our schools have been led by the politically agnostic. The university system has long been a grazing ground for North Carolina politicos like Erskine Bowles and Bill Friday, but to hear its past luminaries put it, UNC’s governing board has never been so nakedly partisan, so turbulent, and so utterly dysfunctional.

The board, and the legislature at its reins, govern a university system that serves a diverse state, but lawmakers have delivered a nearly all-white, all-conservative panel, one increasingly more homogeneous after the House’s vote this week to replace Walter Davenport, a Black Democrat, with Terry Hutchens, a white Republican.

When Smith assumed the chairman role, his supporters applauded his frank leadership. Smith, meanwhile, promised to be “incredibly transparent.” But there’s nothing transparent about Staton’s backdoor departure, another embarrassing moment for a bruised and bedraggled UNC system.

Between the board’s unwelcome intrusion into chancellors’ appointments, its inclusion of past and present lobbyists, its scoffing appraisal of basic conflict of interest principles, its obsequiousness toward the GOP’s legislative agenda, its scurrilous torpedoing of liberal-minded university centers, and its theatrical, reactionary politics, an academic board led by politicians has become a political board through and through. And its sharpest critics – including past leaders in the university system – hail from both political parties.

That old adage – “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” – doesn’t always apply. But I have my suspicions about the acrid plumes billowing from the UNC administration building.

The board needs “balance,” past leaders say, surely an understatement. It’s not so simple as saying the board needs more Democrats or Libertarians or independents. It needs leaders who plot the best course forward for the university system, not axe-wielding partisans.

Whether or not the leadership of this Board of Governors needs to depart next is up for debate, but whether or not this Board of Governors has made a colossal mess of things is settled.