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Partisan rancor threatens university system

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UNC president Margaret Spellings looks through paperwork during the Board of Governors meeting in Chapel Hill, N.C., Friday.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The divisiveness and rancor exhibited in a recent meeting of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors is a threat to the reputation and stability of a university long regarded as North Carolina’s crown jewel.

Relatively speaking, North Carolina is a state with many pockets of poverty; it suffers from the racial divides seen in other southern states; its anti-union, “right-to-work” tradition has been a black eye in terms of its reputation among other states with high-tech dreams; its history in the civil rights movement is not good; and the 30-year tenure of the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms gave the state an image as an outpost for right-wing politics.

But always, or so it seems anyway, the University of North Carolina system has been a point of pride. From the smallest institutions such as UNC-Asheville and its writing and arts programs to the wonders of UNC-Chapel Hill and its breathtaking health care system and N.C. State’s cutting edge work in science, technology and agriculture, the university system has been universally admired, literally around the world.

Now, thanks to the amateurish, partisan rancor dividing the current edition of the UNC Board of Governors and the almost childish outbreak of anger evident in a recent meeting, North Carolinians should justifiably worry that the university that belongs to them is in jeopardy.

A cabal of 15 of the 28 members of the board exposed divisions in a letter criticizing the university system’s leaders, including President Margaret Spellings, for their handling of a controversy over the presence and possible removal of “Silent Sam,” the Confederate memorial statue that has stood in a prominent spot on the Chapel Hill campus for more than 100 years.

Gov. Roy Cooper, asked for his advice, told university leaders they could remove the statue – one of many under question around the South after the Charlottesville tragedy – if it posed a safety hazard. They didn’t, but Republicans who now dominate the BOG were angered that Cooper’s advice was even sought.

In a BOG meeting Thursday, some of the same disgruntled members offered a flurry of resolutions supporting a lowering of tuition and fees – pandering to the general public – and then suggesting reorganizing Spellings’ staff and moving the system headquarters out of Chapel Hill, to avoid the appearance of favoritism toward the flagship campus.

Board member Joe Knott, a conservative by any measure, took issue with the suggestions, saying changes might be fine “but there are ways to do that without doing damage to what has been built over hundreds of years.” And Leo Daughtry, board member and former Republican legislator, criticized what he saw as the “sentiment and intention” of the letter and said emails “were clearly written to undermine the leadership of the University.”

Spellings’ strongest supporters, the ones who helped direct her hiring after the dismissal of President Tom Ross, are gone from the board in a downsizing by the legislature, where it was rumored that legislative leaders favored the appointment as president of Peter Hans, a long-time Republican operative who has once served as the chair of the Board of Governors. Spellings brought Hans on board in fact, to her General Administration office.

Then there’s former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer, who seems to be at the center of the storm. Fetzer sent the letter critical of university leadership on the Silent Sam issues, and defends the current disputes, saying, “Raging internal conflict is a long-held American tradition.”

That’s a shallow justification for an internal revolt led by people who have no idea of the complexities of running a university system, but plenty of ideas about hard-ball politics. They’ve succeeded in banning the important work of the UNC Center for Civil Rights from doing legal work for low-income and minority groups, a proud part of its history.

The really bad news is: More shenanigans and destructive action is sure to come, which does not bode well for the future of the crown jewel.

The News & Observer

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