Study Recommends Major Changes in UNC Governance

RALEIGH – A newly-released study commissioned by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy and undertaken by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni recommends several key changes in the way the UNC system is governed. The two foremost recommendations are that the governor should appoint members to the UNC Board of Governors and that the Board should be reduced from 32 members to 15.

The study, entitled “Governance in the Public Interest: A Case Study of the University of North Carolina system” and was researched and written by Phyllis Palmiero, an education consultant who previously served as the executive director of Virginia’s higher education system. A copy of the report can be viewed here.

In all, five major recommendations were made in the report. Other recommendations include retaining the Board of Governors to oversee the 16 campus UNC system, delegating more authority to campus boards of trustees, and to make the Board of Governors more proactive.

The most dramatic change would be for the governor to appoint the members of the Board of Governors. Currently, Board of Governors members are selected by the General Assembly. Palmerio contends that the current system does not allow for the governor, whom she considers as the CEO of the state, to set the agenda for higher education.

“Right now, with legislators selecting every member on the UNC Board of Governors, often with more regard to local consideration than statewide needs, there is no comprehensive vision, no statewide leadership, no clear accountability,” Palmerio writes in the report. “A revised structure, along these lines, would provide valid checks and balances and ensure a clear and constitutional separation of powers.”

The current appointment structure makes it hard for the board to be proactive to statewide higher education needs. Palmerio said when a governor appoints members, they usually serve with a greater focus on the statewide needs for the system rather than individual areas or campuses.

A process in which the governor selects the members to a state’s higher education governing board is used in several states, according to ACTA President Anne Neal.

“The power to appoint is the power to lead,” Neal said. “If higher education is to have statewide leadership, that can only come from the higher elected official, the governor.”

With regards to reducing the board’s size from 32 members to 15, Palmerio said larger boards are typically harder to work with. In the current configuration, most of board’s work is done in the committees with board members rubber stamping the decisions during the full board meeting.

Palmerio said that the reduction in the board’s membership should be done by eliminating positions when current terms expire.

“An oversized board diffuses responsibility and makes meaningful discussion difficult,” Palmerio wrote. “… A smaller board would focus on central issues, allow thorough discussion, and increase each member’s accountability.”

Palmerio also said the individual boards of trustees have little authority over their campuses, lacking control over the hiring, firing, and compensation of senior staff members, including the chancellor. For that reason, they cannot address the unique needs and problems of their institutions. (The role of boards of trustees has received attention in the General Assembly this session. A provision in the Senate’s state budget would give UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University authority to set their own tuition rates.)

“Institutional authority should be devolved to the campus-based boards of trustees, with the Board of Governors responsible for general oversight,” Palmerio wrote. “This would remove a significant amount of ordinary business off the Board of Governors’ agenda, empowering it to spend more time on the systematic, big picture.”

While Palmerio suggests changes to the Board of Governors, she does not recommend for the board to be dissolved. She said a statewide governing body is needed to implement statewide higher education policy initiatives.

Explaining her position, Palmiero said that, “the single system-wide, governing board provides for a stronger accountability and leadership than the alternative model – a statewide coordinating agency with separate campus-by-campus governing boards.” She would like to see statewide authority put to constructive use – for example to implement a statewide measure of educational quality.

“Governance in the Public Interest” should stir up considerable discussion over the effectiveness of the UNC governance system.

Shannon Blosser ( is a staff writer with the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Chapel Hill.

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