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With presidency of UNC Bowles inherits a legacy

by Jordan Green

When Erskine Bowles walked the quarter mile down Spring Garden Street to Aycock Auditorium for his inauguration on April 12, he came full circle ‘—’ as a native Greensboro son returned to his hometown, as head of the university system his father so loved and as a dynastic state leader wrestling with the great educational questions created by the era of economic globalism he helped usher in as an administrative hand for President Clinton.

The 60-year-old Bowles strolled behind the robed faculty contingent, flanked by the chairman of the University of North Carolina board of governors, Bradley Wilson, and the man he called ‘“my longtime friend and advisor,’” former President CD Spangler. The consummate inside dealmaker smiled genially while avoiding any excess emotion that might be mistaken for self glorification. He shook hands and posed for pictures with wel-wishers at times when the procession slowed to a halt. Bowles’ predecessor, Molly Broad, who came from California to lead the university in 1997 and stepped down in December, walked ahead of and apart from the three men with a regal comportment and unflappable smile, opaque as ice.

Before Judge Howard Manning ‘—’ the superior court judge who threatened to close several high schools across the state, including two in Greensboro, if they did not bring test scores up ‘—’ and before the governor, the heads of the state’s two legislative bodies, chancellors from the 16 campuses, his family and others, Bowles was sworn in as 16th president of the oldest public university in the United States.

Bowles began in his inaugural address by paying homage the political and educational leaders who helped make the University of North Carolina among the best in the country over the past two centuries, stoking the cult of public service in the Tar Heel State and celebrating progressive leadership. Although the text of Erskine Bowles’ speech did not mention his father ‘— a Greensboro investment banker turned politician ‘— Hargrove ‘Skipper’ Bowles’ spirit hovered over the proceedings like unfinished business.

The father’s name is fused with the university. Bowles’ father, who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1986, is the namesake of the Center for Alcohol Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and Skipper Bowles Drive in Chapel Hill. As a member of the NC General Assembly, Skipper Bowles sponsored the legislation that created the alcohol studies center, according to the university. And he raised $3 million for the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center before his death.

Erskine Bowles followed his father into business, launching banking and venture capital firms in Charlotte. The father won the Democratic nomination for North Carolina governor in 1972, but lost to the first Republican elected governor of the state since 1896. After rising to national prominence two decades later the son lost two successive bids to represent North Carolina in the US Senate, succumbing to Republicans Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr.

Erskine Bowles’ homage to great Tar Heel leaders ‘— he namedropped university president Frank Graham, Gov. Terry Sanford and the man who vanquished his father, Gov. James Holshouser ‘— was but a prelude to a dire warning.

‘“At pivotal points in our history, this university has provided the toolkit with which the people of North Carolina built their way out of poverty and mediocrity,’” he said.

Building to his point about how North Carolina workers are now competing with workers from China and India for jobs as those and other countries make rapid advances on the United States in training young people in math, science and engineering, Bowles noted the decline of the state’s manufacturing and agricultural base.

‘“All of us have seen with our own eyes the dramatic change that has occurred in North Carolina’s economy because of losses on our farms and in the textile, apparel and furniture industries ‘— industries that sustained us for generations,’” he said. ‘“But as significant as these transformational changes have been to our economy, I’m afraid we haven’t seen anything yet.’”

He recounted travels through India, Singapore and Indonesia after being appointed deputy special envoy by the United Nations to 13 countries affected by the 2004 tsunami, before calling attention to another ‘“gathering storm.’”

‘“I came to the sobering realization that an economic tsunami is fast bearing down on North Carolina and our entire nation,’” he said. ‘“Our natural inclination might be to batten down the hatches and hope to ride the storm out. But the truth of the matter is this: if we don’t grab hold of the future and get more people educated, we are going to be crushed by this tidal wave of highly educated people from all parts of the world competing for the jobs of tomorrow.’”

What Bowles did not mention is that his wife, Crandall Close Bowles, as CEO of South Carolina-based Springs Industries, is responsible for shifting some of those textile jobs offshore. Springs Industries merged its home textiles business with the Brazilian company Coteminas in January, forming Springs Global SA in January, according to the Hoovers business research company. A 2005 Coteminas press release noted that company CEO Josué Christiano Gomes de Silva and Crandall Close Bowles would be co-chairs of the new company.

Coteminas announced that the merger would make the newly formed company ‘“the largest home textile operational complex in the world.’” With its increased competitiveness, the Brazilian company promised that ‘“the joint venture will be able to expand its industrial base in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico as well as exploring new production possibilities in other low-cost countries.’”

The press release points to cheap labor as one of Crandall Close Bowles’ concerns, quoting her as saying, ‘“Springs has worked with suppliers all over the world, and no company can match Coteminas’ scale, low-cost manufacturing and access to raw materials. The supplier relationship has been an important part of our market share growth since 2001.’”

Neither did Bowles mention his role in helping President Clinton implement the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico in 1994, which eased trade barriers between the three countries and hastened the flight of manufacturing plants to border cities in Mexico. After being appointed director of the Small Business Administration in 1992, Clinton assigned Bowles as a deputy chief of staff and then chief of staff. Bowles also helped guide economic and foreign policy as a member of the National Economic Council and the National Security Council.

Bowles referenced the book The World Is Flat by globalization booster and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and concluded that because of technological advances and economic integration ‘“the cold hard fact is that if we don’t get more of our own people better educated, we’re in a losing fight ‘—’ a fight that we can still win, and win big.’”

To illustrate the grave threat of foreign competition, Bowles provided some factoids.

Within five years, he said, 90 percent of the world’s scientists and engineers will be living and working in Asia.

Two-thirds of students in US high schools studying chemistry and physics are taught by teachers not certified in the field, he added. And in the past four years the University of North Carolina’s 15 schools of education have turned out only three physics teachers.

Bowles praised Judge Manning for his hard-line stance against low-performing schools before promising that the university would help strengthen public schools, as he began a laundry list of promises to energize the university’s role in enhancing the state’s ability to compete for jobs.

Another promise was ‘“a seamless and collaborative relationship with our community colleges.’” Bowles committed to keeping university tuition low, both as a ‘“constitutional mandate’” and a ‘“moral responsibility.’” He promised to do a better job of keeping students in college, calling retention rates ‘“wholly unacceptable.’”

Bowles noted that the University of North Carolina system attracts more than $1 billion in competitive research grants and contracts ‘— the largest share of which come from the federal government ‘— and promised to ‘“build on that enviable record.’”

On that note Bowles ‘— who started his business career more than three decades ago as a corporate finance associate at Morgan Stanley & Co. in New York, and went on to found Bowles, Hallowell Connor & Co., Kitty Hawk Capital and Carousel Capital ‘— brought home his final point: ‘“We must better align our curriculum with the changing needs of business and emerging industries.’”

He preached a sermon of ruthless self-examination and fearless change, saying, ‘“Old patterns, structures and approaches that have worked for centuries must be tested, revised, discarded or enhanced so that they can serve our needs in this rapidly changing global world in which we live.’”

Then he promised, ‘“The University of North Carolina will shine like Hatteras light in the midst of a raging tsunami.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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