UNC: It needs a ‘tune-up,’ not an ‘overhaul’

by DG Martin

What is North Carolina’s most precious public asset?

A lot of people would answer that it is the University of North Carolina system, including all of its 16 campuses. It is the envy of most other states.

On the other hand, some people would argue that the NC Center for Public Policy Research is a competitor for the “most precious” designation. As an independent, non-partisan observer, a careful and deliberate student and an honest reporter on state governmental policy matters, it shines a bright light on the state’s most important problems and policy decisions.

So, when the center studies the university system Board of Governors and issues a report and recommendations, North Carolinians should pay attention.

Earlier this month, the center released a 402-page report, The Statewide UNC Board of Governors: Its Selection, Powers, and Relationship to the 16 Local Campus Boards of Trustees.

Center Director Ran Coble stated that the Center’s study “found that that the basic structure is sound. There is still a great need for a statewide board governing all public universities – a board focused on the University’s three missions of teaching, research, and public service and a University system that is helping meet state needs and solve state problems.”

According to Coble the system needs a “tune-up,” not an “overhaul.”

Nevertheless, the report makes important recommendations, some of which will be controversial.

Here is a brief, and necessarily incomplete, summary:

• Instead of having the legislature choose all 32 members of the board of governors, the governor should appoint 24 of them.

• Appointments to the board should give a broader diversity of gender, geography, political affiliation and race. The terms should be extended from four to six years. The non-voting student representative should be given a vote.

• UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State should continue to be a part of the system. Tuition should be set by the board and not by the individual campuses. The center cautioned that recent tuition increases might violate the state constitution’s mandate that higher education “as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expenses.” There should be greater ‘equity’ in the fundraising resources and staffs on the different campuses.

• The board should lead the reform of inter-collegiate athletics – and impose hard-nose reform policies on the boards of the individual campuses.

• Absent a compelling reason for change, the state should require the university to follow construction and personnel policies applicable to other state agencies.

• The board should “fulfill its statutory duty and exercise its authority to develop a long-range plan for a coordinated system of higher education.”

The center’s study and report is important and useful, especially as it stimulates thoughtful discussion and debate of its recommendations by the public and by the legislature.

‘ The cautions from the center about the dangers of fragmentation of the university system and the board’s failure to follow the state constitution in setting tuition are critical. Failing to heed its recommendations in these areas could put North Carolina’s admired system of higher education in danger – putting at risk this “precious treasure.”

In the area of athletics, the center’s report is prophetic, and its recommendations should be taken seriously. But the Board and the university campuses deserve some recognition for their efforts to manage athletic programs that exceed the standards of most other American universities.

Similarly, with respect to the center’s comments about the board’s duty to develop long-range plans, due credit should be given for the regular and sometimes extraordinary planning efforts of the board. Long-range planning is an imperfect science because it is based on projections of trends and needs. But the UNC system’s ongoing comprehensive planning effort is one of the main reasons the system does not need an “overhaul.”

Finally, I hope the legislature does not rush to change the system of appointing board members in the way the center recommends. Of course, politics is part of the process of selection of board members by the legislature. But if the governor were to make the appointments, I promise it would be just as political. Close political ties between the board and the legislature, while sometimes dangerous, can have an important positive side when board members are helping explain the university’s needs to their friends in the legislature.