A New Era for the Board of Governors?

The state of North Carolina is entering a period of fiscal constraint and a more balanced political atmosphere. Will those forces lead to serious, forward-thinking changes at the University of North Carolina, or will they merely offer the same—just less of it?

To answer those questions, we must look to the UNC Board of Governors, which oversees the University of North Carolina system. It kicked off the 2011-12 academic year with its first meeting last week.

Over the past few years, the Pope Center has proposed a number of bold changes for the university system. We want to cap enrollment to preserve academic quality in the face of smaller budgets. We want the universities to provide greater transparency about what students are being taught, what faculty are researching, and what the university is spending. And we want to prune the underbrush of politicized courses, centers, and programs.

The board has the power to make these and other changes. But in the past, it has stayed away from most academic matters as well as issues such as university transparency.

Now, by one measure—political affiliation—we have a very different board than in the past. Half the voting members of the Board of Governors were selected by the Republican leadership of the General Assembly, ending the dominance of Democrats. While there’s no reason to believe that Republicans care more about academic quality than do Democrats, the new members are not beholden to the status quo or to the Democratic establishment that has traditionally run the university system in North Carolina.

Nor are they likely to be as comfortable with the left-wing thinking that is typical on North Carolina campuses. (The website NCCollegeFinder.org reveals the balance of political party affiliation of faculty and trustees at most colleges and universities in the state.) More of them are also likely to be fiscal conservatives, and thus more willing to cut out unnecessary expenditures.

Some background about the Board of Governors is in order.

The 32-member board upervises the entire University of North Carolina system (16 colleges and the North Carolina School of Science and Math, a high school). Although every state has a body that oversees higher education, this is one of the most powerful, with almost total authority over its constituent universities, although it delegates some powers to them. The UNC president, Thomas Ross, reports to it.

Given its broad authority, one might expect the UNC Board of Governors to be an activist organization making major decisions about its campuses, ranging from reviews of academic quality to determining the efficiency of the system as a whole. Yet, in recent years, commentators have remarked on the board’s docility.

  • A 2005 study for the Pope Center by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) reported: “The Board has not shown the ability to set its own agenda and decide its own priorities for action. As a consequence, the Board’s work is reactive rather than proactive.” 
  • A year later, the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research (NCCPPR) observed that the board had ”not fully utilized” two of its powers: its “authority to terminate unnecessary academic programs,” and its power to plan strategically for the future.
  • During the tenure of system president Erskine Bowles, whose five-year term ended in 2010, the board rarely disagreed publicly with his proposals—possibly just once, when the board wanted a tougher stance following scandals at NC State.

In 2007, perhaps responding to the claim that it wasn’t doing enough planning, the board created the UNC Tomorrow Commission, managed by Norma Houston, an energetic attorney and a former legislative aide. With a flurry of studies and meetings all over the state, the commission attempted to identify long-term needs of the state and relate the university’s mission to those needs, producing an ambitious report that expanded the university’s mission well beyond education. Fortunately, the market crash of 2008 slowed down the implementation of the most expansionist goals.

With that exception, the board has tended to be quiescent—at most, echoing the president, and, more recently, helping to boost university support in the legislature.

In addition to being criticized for passivity, the board has come under fire for its method of selection, which the NCCPPR called “highly politicized.” A position on the board is one of the most sought-after political plums in the state. This is largely because of its prestige but, in addition, it offers some personal advantage, since the board chooses more than half the trustees of the constituent universities.

Some critics have recommended that the state’s governor should share (or completely take over) board appointments. But given the perquisites of doling out such prizes, the House and Senate leadership have kept tight control. In the past, the Democratic leadership’s failure to follow the rules prescribed for legislative election to the board evoked outcries. This year, complaints were levied against the Republican leadership for choosing a preferred slate, which, given Republican control, assured victory for its choices.

Politics aside, a more fundamental problem with the Board of Governors is its size. No management consultant would recommend such a large governing body because it allows—even forces—a small group to take control. During the term of former system president Erskine Bowles, that meant that his powerful personality controlled the agenda. The large size also stifles debate and pushes major decisions into committees.

But the size of the board reflects its origins in 1971 as a way to consolidate governance of 16 campuses. To achieve legislation that essentially ended the independence of the state universities, there had to be a lot of places at the table.

Whatever the structural challenges for the board, it faces another new reality that may be more important than fiscal restraints or political perspectives. The world is becoming as concerned as the Pope Center is about higher education’s quality and cost. ACTA’s president, Anne Neal, spoke before a group of board members last week at a Pope Center luncheon. She pointed out that the titles of recent books about academia tell the story: Academically Adrift, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It, and Our Underachieving Colleges. Students at even the most famous universities are failing to get a solid education—while average tuition has gone up nearly 300 percent since 1990.

Thus, the Board of Governors has a strong motive to find out what students are learning at UNC campuses and how much that learning costs taxpayers and students. Fortunately, two initiatives suggest that the board is not simply going to sit back, and may at least open the door to scrutiny of academic programs.

One is a study of duplication of academic programs, headed by former UNC-Charlotte chancellor Jim Woodward. Although the Board of Governors has always had the right to end degree programs (and turn down new ones) it has rarely felt pressure to do so. Now, the potential savings from cutting back or consolidation cannot be denied.

Second, the Committee on Educational Planning, Policies, and Programs is going to look at faculty workloads. This could be significant—or it could end up as a smokescreen if the committee treats any activity conducted by faculty as “work.” (The University of Delaware method of determining workloads now used by the UNC system does just that.) The public wants to know how much faculty are teaching in return for their state salaries. A preliminary study conducted by the Pope Center suggests that teaching loads are lower than advertised by the university.

These small ventures could be a positive beginning for a serious and aggressive Board of Governors. The board can provide leadership for a university that needs careful scrutiny and significant change, and we hope it will take up the challenge.