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UNC System needs prosperity, not peril

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Sunday, March 24, 2019

Bill Friday, the founding president of what is now the 17-campus University of North Carolina, presided from 1956 until his retirement in 1986 over a spectacular period of growth — and yes, glory — for an institution that has been a source of pride for millions of North Carolinians who have graduated from those campuses. That great system has been a vital part of our state’s economy, a literal lifesaver for those who have received medical care at UNC Health and its far-flung branches, and a world-famous nurturer of some of the finest minds in the history of our state and nation.

But once in a while, in a staff meeting where someone would recoil at a criticism of the university, Friday would also say, “You know, folks — it’s important to remember we’re not right all the time.”

No enlightened leader who has held that presidency, or a chancellor’s job at any of its 17 campuses, would disagree.

But there seems to be a feeling now among some in the General Assembly and on the UNC Board of Governors that the Chapel Hill campus in particular, and the UNC “system” in general, are infected with a liberal bias and that university leaders and students, for that matter, need to be “taught a lesson” with more heavy-handed oversight.

When the Board of Governors was created in 1971, it was specifically designed to take politics out of higher education. While this has always been a struggle, it has worked well for the most part. But the rancor we’ve seen in recent years, resulting in the dismissal of President Tom Ross and the departures of President Margaret Spellings and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt — along with the seemingly endless debate over the Silent Sam statue — isn’t just about partisanship.

Republican lawmakers have named conservatives of their own party to the Board of Governors and changed the governance rules to diminish any appointive authority in the Governor’s Office. This type of action risks turning the Board of Governors into a purely political organization doing the bidding of our legislative leaders. And, in our opinion, that puts our university’s reputation — along with its ability to recruit the best teachers, to win the biggest research grants, to draw business that make bold initiatives like NC State’s Centennial Campus possible — in peril.

We believe there must be balance.

The university’s governing board, even when dominated by Democrats, was never of one mind on all issues. Conservative business leaders have always had a significant role on the board. But they consistently put their faith in a strong presidency, starting with Bill Friday and continuing with Dick Spangler (a conservative businessman himself!) and Molly Broad and most recently with Margaret Spellings, whose vitae includes a long association with the Bush family of Texas.

From Bill Friday’s tenure until now, all of our university presidents have occasionally “slugged it out” figuratively speaking, with the Board of Governors behind closed doors. But the board has historically refrained from micromanaging the university, instead holding the president responsible for executing its long-range plan and managing the university in a fiscally responsible manner. We very much hope they will take that same approach with interim president Bill Roper.

In our view, leaders of the General Assembly who now wish to exercise absolute control over the appointment of the Board of Governors, or diminish the governor’s role in naming trustees, risk damaging our great system’s very foundation. Thus, returning to the original intent of the system’s creators — giving different branches of government a role and seeking diversity in representation from all regions of the state — is no affront to the legislature and no threat to its authority. The General Assembly will continue to exercise the lion’s share of control.

Following that original design of governance will restore a structure that met the ultimate test: it has worked. From the outset, when presidents and chancellors made mistakes or got mired in controversy, the university system and its branches have nevertheless continued to thrive and grow. And as a consequence, the university has continued to gain prestige and fame (and the grants that come with both) and set fundraising records. Why? Because the institution is stronger than any political philosophy, liberal or conservative, and can weather critics within and without its boundaries.

Finally, we do not believe that our university is perfect, or “always right.” In particular, we believe that by opening the university’s doors to more conservative scholars on faculties and in its institutes, our university will make itself even stronger — and convey to all of our citizens its commitment to all thoughts and philosophies. Free speech and thought are the essence of a great democracy. A lack of either threatens us all.

Erskine Bowles is president emeritus of the University of North Carolina and a former White House chief of staff. He currently serves as Chairman of the Board of Advisors of BDT Capital Partners. Richard Vinroot is a former mayor of Charlotte and a one-time Republican candidate for governor of North Carolina. He is currently of counsel in the Robinson Bradshaw law firm.

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