At a Wednesday meeting of a UNC Board of Governors task force , there was a long discussion of how to make meetings of the full board more efficient, more productive, with more “deliverables.” In short, as several members said repeatedly, the objective is to make it run more like a successful business.
Running the meeting was task force Chairman Tom Fetzer, the former N.C. Republican Party Chairman who was appointed to the board in March.
Along with a few former GOP state lawmakers appointed to the board in the last few years, Fetzer—who quoted combative conservative icon Margaret Thatcher at a full board meeting in September—is part of a new and especially conservative wing of the mostly Republican board that has made it clear it intends to shake things up.
Some of the suggestions found some pushback from a few board members and UNC system president Margaret Spellings.
Board member Joe Knott shared skepticism about a number of the ideas advanced. They included: encouraging more members to participate by way of teleconference and video-conference, reducing or doing away with ceremonial and social aspects of meetings in which faculty often participate or are recognized, and having people provide videos of presentations to the board before (or instead of) meeting live to go over the material with them.
“A college by definition has to be collegial,” said board member Joe Knott. “If we shave out too much of the collegiality we no longer have a college.”
Spellings said chancellors were likely to balk at being told they didn’t need to come to meetings and could simply watch or listen to them remotely.
“They believe it may be a case of, ‘If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu,’” Spellings said.
An increasing number of faculty members and administrators at UNC’s flagship campus believe that’s exactly what the Board of Governors— which they see as more partisan and aggressively interventionist than past boards— has in mind.
Michael Palm, an associate professor of Communications at UNC-Chapel Hill, put it bluntly.
“The Board of Governors’ five year plan seems to be to turn Chapel Hill into a vocational college with really good sports teams,” Palm said.
BOG v. UNC
Palm has been teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill for nearly a decade and said he’s never seen faculty morale lower.
“Faculty are trying to leave and are leaving in droves,” Palm said. “Particularly junior faculty of color, who are already woefully represented among the faculty.”
The problem, said Palm, is that since 2010—when Republicans won a majority in the state House and Senate for the first time since 1898—the legislature has felt more free to interfere in higher education  than at any time in modern history.
“The Board of Governors is a tool of the General Assembly,” Palm said. “They’re appointed by them. And it’s abundantly, obviously clear that the goal of the General Assembly is to seize control not just of higher education but education in North Carolina and privatize it.”
The examples are many, he said.
“Incursions on academic freedom, the closing of the Center for Work and Poverty and the Center for Civil Rights, the ideological clash between those of us on campus who feel that UNC is here to serve the people of NC and the General Assembly, who feels that the university is here to serve the state as an institution.”
The board barring the UNC Chapel Hill School of Law’s Center for Civil Rights from litigating  is one of the most shocking examples, Palm said.
“They explicitly said they didn’t think a center connected to the university should be suing the state,” Palm said. “But the purpose of the university is not to serve the government and to protect it from being sued—it’s to serve and represent the people of the state.”
Professor John McGowan has taught in the English Department at Chapel Hill for 25 years. He agrees that intervention by the legislature and board of governors has been more damaging to faculty morale and retention than even the lingering impact of the Great Recession.
“You know, we’ve been battered financially since 2008,” McGowan said. “But I was surprised in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis that morale seemed fairly high. Part of that is that we had leadership that was our own. There was a good relationship between faculty and upper administration and a trust. That’s disappeared.”
Well-informed faculty have always understood that politics and academia are not completely inseparable, McGowan said—and as a politically appointees the Board of Governors has always been, in some sense, a political body. But there’s something different about its current incarnation, he said.
“We have a board of governors who seems determined to intervene in decisions and policies in ways that past boards of governors didn’t,” McGowan said. “In that sense, it’s a more interventionist board and it’s obviously political. That was clear when they asked for a system wide review of these university centers and then the ones they went after were the ones they disagreed with politically.”
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, made a point of addressing the problem at a Wednesday forum in Charlotte held by the Higher Education Works Foundation .
“I think the president of our university needs to be allowed to do her job,” Cooper said in remarks before the forum. “The board of governors needs to set policy, but then she needs to be allowed the freedom to execute.”
The remarks seemed aimed at a series of small dust-ups between the board of governors and Spellings, who was appointed by a board that forced out previous UNC president Tom Ross, a prominent Democrat. Since then, the board members who championed Spellings have left the board or not been re-appointed.
Most recently, the board publicly took Spellings to task over her contacting Cooper to ask that the N.C. Historical Commission be convened to determine whether Silent Sam, a Confederate monument on Chapel Hill’s campus, should be removed. GOP legislators then wrote to the commission to say they did not believe it had the power to remove the statue under current law.
“We need to give our presidents and our chancellors flexibility,” Cooper said at Wednesday’s forum. “And we need to make sure all branches of government are involved in higher education. It makes them all stronger. The recent taking away of the governor’s appointments to university boards of trustees doesn’t help those universities. I’m not going to be governor forever. The legislature’s not going to be there forever. But the system will be and there needs to be input from all of us.”
A political clash of culture
Wednesday’s forum in Charlotte—which featured a moderated discussion with Spellings, N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore and Acting N.C. Community College System President Jennifer Haygood—also emphasized a political culture divide in the way higher education is seen.
Asked about a divide in perceptions of higher education, Spellings—who served as Secretary for Education under President George W. Bush—gave what many UNC system faculty members in attendance said was a bizarrely partisan answer.
Spellings said she was troubled by a recent Pew Research Center study that showed 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country, while just 36% say their effect is positive.
Spellings said she believed that shift in thinking reflected many peoples’ feeling that they’ve been priced out of higher education—but also that universities do not reflect their values.
“I think they also see on campuses around the country and for those of us who are in the public square that this is not an easy time to be there,” Spellings said. “This is where our intense political debates play out.”
“So the speakers who go to college campuses and are spit at, shouted at and beat up; that makes moms and dads in King’s Mountain say ‘what the heck?’” Spellings said. “I think maybe they see not a reflection of their own values, beliefs and orthodoxy reflected in higher education.”
“Civil discourse has gone missing in higher education,” Spellings said. “Especially at our flagships and more elite institutions. So we need to work on that. We need to bring that balance back and see all points of view so that we can rebut this erroneous belief that higher education is the problem.”
A number of faculty members in attendance said that pivoting to what they see as a right-wing talking point about student protesters opposing conservative—and in some case white supremacist speakers—says a lot about the view of higher education held by Spellings and the Board of Governors.
Characterizing flagship schools as “elite” also speaks to a particular sort of conservative culture, Palm said.
Staunch political conservatives have never concealed their disdain for Chapel Hill, Palm said. He noted that Jesse Helms famously said the state didn’t need a zoo when it could simply put a fence around Chapel Hill.
“But even the staunchest of them didn’t go after academic freedom the way the current General Assembly has,” Palm said. “Historically, even in a red state, the university system has always been granted autonomy and freedom. And it’s clear now that’s over.”
McGowan agreed that a cultural divide—based at least in part in a lack of understanding of higher education—is at play.
“They think we educate liberals,” McGowan said. “They think nice, beautiful North Carolina kids come to Chapel Hill and we turn them into liberals.”
But that viewpoint ignores obvious evidence about universities and their positive impact on what every Republican politician says they want—jobs and economic development.
“There is certainly a notion that a lot of these people want to revise the system but do not understand higher education, don’t understand the research function of a university,” McGowan said. “They think our primary function is to educate undergraduates and see a translation of that into jobs. The obvious point to make about that is that the three universities of the Triangle are demonstrably the economic drivers of the Triangle as opposed to the relative poverty of the other areas of the state.”
Chapel Hill shouldn’t get all of the attention or resources, McGowan said—and a continued investment in smaller universities and community colleges in the system is a good thing. But neither should the larger universities be vilified.
“Republican legislators increasingly target higher education as the problem,” Palm said. “Meanwhile, uniformly, employers say in studies they want their applicants to have a broad ranging, interdisciplinary liberal arts education.”
“I’m much more invested in educating citizens than employees,” Palm said. “But speaking the language of the business world, a liberal arts education is what employers want applicants to have. So there’s a large disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality.”
The next Board of Governors Task Force meeting will be Monday, October 9 at 10 a.m. in Room 128 at the Center for School Leadership Development at 140 Friday Center Drive in Chapel Hill. Its subject: the purpose of UNC General Administration. Policy Watch will continue to cover this developing story.