Requiem for a Heavyweight

Author’s note: Minutes before this article was published on the Pope Center site, the story broke that Erskine Bowles has been named co-chair of a presidential panel to cut the budget deficit,  perhaps explaining the timing of his resignation.

I was feeling rather intimidated at my first University of North Carolina Board of Governors meeting in the fall of 2007. It was a big step up from the suburban New Jersey township councils and planning boards I used to cover as a newspaper reporter. As I gazed over the elegant Spangler Ballroom where the meetings are held, the gathering appeared to be as much a social event as a governance meeting, with fashionably-dressed people smiling and exchanging laughs and hugs before getting down to business. I figured that they were members of the state’s corporate, academic, social, and political elite (one of the governors was an actual former governor of North Carolina). I also knew that the president of the university system had previously established himself in the highest national political circles as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff.

As a new employee of a conservative-leaning think tank entering an academic setting where the politics trend liberal, I had no problem with being anonymous. My job was to write a story about the proceedings, so I sought a seat where I could be a mere “fly on the wall.”

A tall, slender, well-tanned man in his early sixties, with thick glasses and thinning brown hair, appeared before me, stuck out his hand, and introduced himself: “Hello, I’m Erskine Bowles.” He was gracious and welcoming, and knew my name and employer. That the shining star in this well-heeled assemblage would make the effort to offer his personal welcome unnerved me, and I became flustered. I mentally kicked myself for giving a bad first impression—I don’t know whether he walked away thinking that I wasn’t the swiftest boat in the lake or that I had been deliberately rude because of politically animosity. Or whether he simply dismissed me without a second thought.

I wondered about what kind of man I just met. My only real knowledge of him was that he was a successful financier who worked for President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky mess, and that he had lost of couple of U.S. senatorial elections. Was he truly this open and friendly, or was he merely keeping his “enemies” close at hand? After all, no one could have the career that he had without learning how to disarm, cajole, and charm the opposition.

In time, I came to realize that he is a lot of conflicting things. He is somebody who directed his staff to cooperate with critics from the opposing side of the political spectrum (in this case, me), knowing full well that the end result might be a scathing article against his policies on the op-ed pages. He is also somebody who could “cuss out” a student government representative to get the young man on board with his policies (according to the young man in question).  He is an inside member of North Carolina’s Democratic machine, which is gaining a well-deserved reputation for corruption, while at the same time he favors greater transparency. He is a genuinely decent man who tried to use the power granted him to improve his realm, and a dangerous political infighter with an agenda at the same time.

And he is full of surprises—he once told me in an email to “never pull your punches” when I was criticizing him. He is a complex Southern stew of qualities that inevitably made him rich, famous, popular, powerful—and effective.  

Bowles had already performed on much larger stages than the UNC presidency when he arrived in Chapel Hill in 2006, and he simply overwhelmed his provincial supporting cast. For example, UNC Tomorrow began as an independent commission launched by the Board of Governors, but once he adopted it as his own, it produced a blueprint for the university system—to which all policy changes must adhere—that mostly echoed his wishes.

Management is Bowles’ forte—he sets priorities and follows through, and does not merely respond to events in willy-nilly knee-jerk fashion. The priorities in his inaugural speech became most of the priorities in the UNC Tomorrow Commission Report, and then became the “action plan” for this school year. This is not to say he doesn’t react well to changed conditions. After several years of extremely generous appropriations from the state government, he has reversed course without incident in the last year-and-a-half, slashing budgets largely through cutting administrative bloat while preserving academics.

On the day before he announced his resignation, at the February Board of Governors meeting, his staff gave a presentation of where the system stood on these priorities.

His number one stated priority from his inauguration to the present is helping to improve North Carolina’s K-12 public education. This initially meant “more and better” teachers, according to Bowles. He has had to change course in this area, for the state no longer needs to produce many more teachers now that population growth has slowed. The centerpiece of his effort to improve teacher quality is a “longitudinal study” that attempts to identify the best programs and practices for training K-12 teachers. This study is just now becoming available.

But other areas have actually taken more of his attention: improving the system’s business practices, increasing “access” to education, and aiding in the state’s economic development.  

At the first, he has excelled. He hired a team of consultants from accounting giant Ernst & Young to examine how the system conducts business: enrollment, payroll, procurement of goods and services, and so on. As a result, the system is now moving toward greater standardization, adopting “best” practices from the private sector, and leveraging the system’s tremendous buying power to lower procurement costs.

Just getting an unwieldy academic bureaucracy—one that is highly resistant to change—to adopt more efficient business systems is job enough for one man with a five-year term.

His campaign to make a UNC education more accessible has had mixed results. UNC schools historically raised tuition in wild fluctuations—increasing them as much as 20 percent annually during economic downturns, when tax revenues were low, and hardly at all when growth and tax revenues were high. Bowles objected to this, since it makes planning for families difficult and raises the cost of tuition when jobs are few and demand for education is high. So he instituted a cap of 6.5 percent for all tuition raises, thereby making educational expenses both low and predictable.

But his drive to enable the state’s low-income students to graduate debt-free has run into trouble. Need scholarships are mainly funded by the state’s escheats fund, and an increase in scholarship students has nearly sucked the fund dry. (At the current rate, it will be empty in 2012).

With the imminent end of the escheats fund’s largesse, Bowles has increasingly turned to tuition increases to pay for the expensive need scholarship programs. But scholarships funded by raising tuition do not necessarily increase overall access. Rather, they make college more accessible for low-income residents while decreasing accessibility for the tuition-paying middle-class.

Bowles is a fervent believer that public higher education has a central role to play in economic development. Yet he acknowledged this summer that one of his pet development projects, UNC’s biotech research efforts at Kannapolis, is “very risky.” Indeed, there is no guarantee of any return for the eventual hundreds of millions of dollars  (now $22 million annually in operating expenses) the state might pour in.

His legacy will always include his involvement in the Mary Easley affair, in which the former governor’s wife was improperly given a sweetheart job and an outlandish raise at N.C. State. When improprieties first became public, Bowles circled the wagons and resolutely defended Easley, N.C. State chancellor James Oblinger, who hired her, and State provost Larry Nielsen, who was held responsible for her raise.

Months later, it became apparent that serious ethical offenses had occurred, and Bowles’ failure to launch an investigation hurt his reputation. Still, while there have been quite a few major scandals on his watch, none—including Mary Easley’s job—were caused by his appointments (although one might be brewing at N.C. Central).

The Mary Easley case highlighted one of Bowles’ initial shortcomings. He was too trusting of academics, without realizing the ethics-avoiding sense of privilege that pervades much of the Ivory Tower.  However, his reaction to the potential misuse of university funds at Central shows that he is learning: this time he immediately contacted both the state auditor and the state attorney general.

He also never approached the single biggest problem in the university system: the left-wing ideological bias that dominates the modern campus. (This is, of course, an extremely difficult and thankless task.) But if he was not the UNC president that conservatives would like, he was perhaps the best they could get, given the Democratic domination of the state.

In the final analysis, he must be commended for his public service without regard for personal gain. It is hard to imagine Bowles being corrupt on his own behalf. His family has contributed much more to the university system over several decades than he received in total salary (he also donated the $125,000 salary increase he received over his predecessor to need scholarships).

Bowles’ policies and actions have often frustrated, angered, and bewildered me (a die-hard conservative). Yet, after the announcement of his impending retirement, I find it impossible not to respect a man who goes out of his way to aid and encourage his most ardent critic, in order to be sure he’s getting all sides of the story with which to make his decisions. There will be some big shoes to fill on Raleigh Road in Chapel Hill very soon.