What is the worst idea floating around about the UNC system these days?
Jesse White, who headed up the Southern Growth Policies Board and also served adjunct professor of government and city and regional planning at UNC-Chapel Hill, has an answer.
“Political meddling with academic institutions is a dangerous business,” he wrote in the Raleigh News & Observer on Nov. 4.
Indeed, the legislature and the UNC Board of Governors have frightened the public education community with a series of actions and proposals regarding university activities and funding.
Jesse White writes, “The connection between the highly partisan General Assembly and the BOG (Board of Governors) has brought us to a dangerous tipping point.”
White points out North Carolina’s legislative appointment of the Board of Governors is unique. But politics makes its way into public university board selection in other states. So, changing the method of selecting board members, even if the General Assembly were willing to give up its prerogative, would not insulate the UNC system from politics.
The UNC system has succeeded in large part because longtime university President William Friday and the leaders who followed him worked hard and smart to educate, inspire, and turn the General Assembly’s selected board members into advocates for the universities’ needs.
Rather than spend energy on efforts to change the Board of Governors’ selection method, university supporters should rally against those specific proposals that deserve bi-partisan opposition.
Here are two bad ideas that ought to be scuttled.
The first is a proposal to move the system headquarters from Chapel Hill to another location. Various reasons are given for the idea. Some supporters of other state universities worry that UNC-Chapel Hill has too much influence on decision-making and resource allocation because of its proximity to the system offices. Others say Chapel Hill is not a convenient place for the Board of Governors to meet. None of these reasons is particularly persuasive to me.
But there are many reasons to stay put. The UNC system is, first of all, an educational enterprise and the surroundings of the university community in Chapel Hill complement the system’s educational focus and its primary reason to be.
Attracting educational leaders who want to work in an academic environment and community would be more difficult if the operational headquarters were in some generic governmental office location far away from the education focus of a university campus.
The backbreaker to this bad idea is the cost in money and the disruption in abandoning the current office buildings and replacing them at some new location.
The current location shows and seals the idea that the university system is not just another governmental office. It demonstratively shares its campuses’ roles in teaching, research, and service to the state. So, even if the move were free, leaving its historic home would be a heavy blow to the UNC system.
The second and even worse idea now circulating is to provide the Board of Governors with its own separate staff. Such a staff would add expenses in salaries, office space and support.
The board’s separate staff would have to find reasons for its existence. Drawing board members into day-to-day management, the new staff would request information and explanations from the president’s staff, from the campuses, and from new consultants that they would hire.
The separate staff could become a focal point for disenchanted board members to interfere with management of the system and the campuses and to scheme against the president and the policies of the board’s majority.
Even if removing politics from the Board of Governors is not a possibility, those who support the university should join a nonpartisan effort to persuade the board to put aside the ideas of a separate board staff or a move from Chapel Hill.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.