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‘Hyper-partisan’ moves threaten UNC’s future

The sudden resignation of Margaret Spellings as president of the UNC system should be a wake-up call to every North Carolinian who understands that public higher education in this state is an engine of prosperity for all of us. With Spellings’ departure, we may well see an end to the long line of talented public servants who have led the university system to its nationally respected position.

Spellings — like all of her predecessors — has done yeoman’s service protecting the public’s interest in educational excellence from the partisan excesses, autocratic proclivities, stunning ignorance, and straight-up stupidity of the N.C. General Assembly and their sycophants on the UNC Board of Governors. But it is unlikely the next president will carry that legacy forward.

The current board — one of only two higher education governing boards in the country hand-picked by legislators — has proven that the conservative Pope (now Martin) Center for higher education was spot on when it warned that “Right now, with legislators selecting members, often with regard more to local factors than statewide needs, there is no statewide vision, no statewide leadership, no clear accountability” in university governance.

Indeed, untethered from any meaningful system of “valid checks and balances,” or “a clear and constitutional separation of powers,” the legislature and their minions on this board have moved sharply to turn the university into a large-scale experiment in hyper-partisan social engineering.

The politicization of higher education has been an ongoing curse in this state. The only difference between Democratic and Republican efforts to railroad University leaders is that this batch of Republicans has been better bullies than autocratic Democrats.

The result is that we now have the bizarre spectacle of two talented UNC leaders, Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings, run out of town on the same rail, by the same board, the same legislative leadership, and for exactly the same reason: both refused to allow demands for partisan conformity to disrupt the university’s pursuit of academic excellence.

Given this poisonous caldron, the chances of finding leaders of talent, principle, and integrity to apply for the UNC president’s job are just about nil. It is very likely that the next president of the University will be virtually indistinguishable from a talkative doormat.

Thus will this sad chapter in the decline of UNC governance come to a close, and the new history of UNC as an outpost of autocratic capture will begin. Here is what Ross and Spellings fought back, and what the next president will have to swallow in order to “qualify” for the job:

• A new presidential search process intended to give the legislature more control and weaken the board’s independence in the chief executive search. 

• A smaller Board of Governors (once 32, now 28, soon to be 24 members), the effect of which will give lawmakers a higher percentage of flatterers on the board. 

• The enforcement of mean-spirited legislation that was intended to downsize higher education, close off opportunities for student from less privileged circumstances, and target the state’s minority institutions.

• More political interference in the teaching, research, and service duties of University staff and faculty. 

• A re-imposition of the ill-conceived policy of inserting the board in campus chancellor searches. Passed in 2015, the policy was recently amended after (as predicted) the board abused its powers in some chancellor searches, savaging the president’s efforts to help the campuses secure effective leadership. 

• A hyperpoliticized oversight of campus leadership. Last year the legislature stripped away the last vestiges of executive participation in university governance, usurping the governor’s authority to make appointments to the campus Boards of Trustees.

What we have then is a badly designed governance structure that is easily corrupted by political scoundrels, often working against a great system of public higher education protected and cultivated by honest public servants who have always put the public good before partisan prejudices.

With the shortened tenure of Tom Ross, and now the sudden resignation of Margaret Spellings, it has become clear that the scoundrels have won the day — for the moment.

(Stephen Leonard is an emeritus professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and a past chair of the UNC system Faculty Assembly. This article first appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer. For more coverage of higher education in North Carolina, go to newsobserver.com.)

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