With the resignation of both UNC system President Margaret Spellings and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, the university finds itself at a crossroads.
Both leaders stepped down in the last few months after years of conflict with the UNC Board of Governors. Both struggled with the board over everything from the future of the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument to how much authority the university’s administration should wield and how much direction it should take from the board.
Years of political controversies and personality conflicts with and among the UNC Board of Governors have led to national headlines, mass protests and a burgeoning identity crisis for the 17-campus UNC system.
Worse, national experts and longtime faculty members say, the politically volatile atmosphere threatens to drive away top candidates for leadership positions at the university, highly regarded academics and the sort of students who have made UNC a world-class university.
“UNC is one of the crown jewels of public education,” said Barmak Nassirian, the director of Federal Relations and Policy Analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “It is an amazing institution with so much to be proud of. Under normal circumstances, until fairly recently, to become chancellor or president of the system would be one of the most coveted positions.”
But after years of public squabbles between the university’s leaders and its increasingly conservative and combative Board of Governors, Nassirian said that view is beginning to change.
“There are seemingly irreconcilable differences between the folks charged with governing the operation and the campus communities and the poor souls charged with running the operation,” he said. “That makes it a very dangerous mission for anybody to step in. Who would want to leave a workable arrangement to attempt to play Solomon? How do you bridge that gap? It strains credulity to imagine who would want to step into this except for a partisan for one side.”
That’s precisely what longtime faculty members worry about as the Board of Governors begins a search for the next leaders of the UNC system and its flagship campus at Chapel Hill. Board members authorized interim UNC system President William Roper to appoint an interim chancellor for UNC-Chapel Hill.
There is disagreement on the board as to what sort of leader it should pursue and how that search should be handled.
Harry Watson, a prominent historian who has taught at UNC-Chapel Hill for 42 years, said faculty members have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the bald-faced politicization of the board. The change has been obvious since former UNC system President Tom Ross was ousted in 2015 without a clear reason beyond politics, Watson said.
Appointed by a new Republican majority that took control of the General Assembly in 2010, the Board of Governors asserted its partisan agenda through the closing of academic centers and quarrels with faculty member, chancellors and boards of trustees. Even Spellings, a prominent Republican who was the U.S. secretary of education under President George W. Bush, got a short honeymoon. Almost immediately after her election in October 2015, she began clashing with board members who she said seemed determined to give her orders, usurp her authority and publicly chastise her.
“This is the most politicized I’ve ever seen it,” Watson said of the board. “I think the current majority in the General Assembly has pushed the entire state toward a politically polarized position. Certainly when the Board of Governors fired our previous system President Tom Ross — basically for being a Democrat — that was a clear sign that politics had assumed a poisonous role in the life of the university and things have deteriorated.”
Input from faculty members, staff members and student groups seems almost completely disregarded by the board now, Watson said. That is unfortunate and dangerous, he said.
“It’s not that students, faculty and staff should dictate to the rest of the state everything that happens at the universities,” Watson said. “The board and their staff obviously have a crucial leadership role. But without the brains and the creativity, the energy and the love of the students, staff and faculty you don’t have a university. What you have is a dead husk.”
“The University of North Carolina could never have the national reputation it has if it were not for the fact that there is a faculty, student body and staff who love the place, are committed to it and want to commit their lives and their futures to a great institution and improving a great institution,” Watson added. “If you kill off their sense of participation in that institution, you kill off the whole thing.”
Nassirian agreed. He said that in his nearly 30 years of working in public education policy, he has observed that the more political a university system becomes, the more alienating it is to those who make it valuable.
“Public universities are funded by the public,” he said. “It’s right that elected officials should have significant say over the financial piece of things, for instance. But to be a university requires you to pursue the truth, be objective, not become an opportunistic creature of the times.
“In treating the university as though it’s no different than the DMV — ‘I won an election, I can do what I want with it’ — you can kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” Nassirian said.
William Sturkey is an assistant professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill who has been on the front lines of the controversy over the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue.
Like Watson, he criticized Folt for waiting so long to clearly articulate her feeling that the statue no longer belonged on the campus. She ordered the removal of its base only after the statue was toppled, on the day she announced her resignation.
But the Board of Governors’ reaction — denouncing Folt on her way out and forcing her to leave at the end of this month rather than the end of the semester — was illogical, Sturkey said.
“It’s clearly a punitive measure toward one person that hurts the entire campus,” he said. “It’s a real shame and a real disservice to the students. To decide that she can’t finish out the semester makes you wonder if they have any idea what she really does as chancellor. She isn’t sitting in her office all day thinking about Confederate statues. There is no way that someone can, in two weeks, be prepared to take over everything she does.”
The lack of transparency that already surrounds the searches for Spellings and Folt’s replacements does not bode well for finding qualified leaders who can help to heal the system, Sturkey said.
“As irrational as some of the board’s actions have been, it seems obvious that they really don’t care about all aspects of running a campus,” he said. “Just the politically visible ones. We don’t hear anything from them when the campus doesn’t have water for two days. But they will spend an incredible amount of money and time on something like protecting a Confederate statue.”
The Board of Governors has made it repeatedly clear that its first priority is politics, Sturkey said, so there is little evidence that that reality will not govern its search for new leaders.