The Taming of the Trustees

(Editor’s note: This article is based on an op-ed published in the Raleigh News & Observer on August 17.)

A public university system requires an active board that makes independent decisions. Yet that is seldom the case; governing bodies tend to act like rubber-stamp committees and social clubs instead of asserting themselves.

One way that university system administrations reduce their governing boards to subservient status is by controlling the flow of information. The old joke that goes, “They treat us like mushrooms; they keep us in the dark and feed us ­­­­manure,” applies to trustees and regents.

The University of North Carolina system Board of Governors (BOG) meetings illustrate the problem. When a topic is introduced at a BOG meeting, an expert gives testimony to frame the issues and present the relevant facts. Discussion and questions by the board members follow, with the topic then referred to the appropriate committee if further action is warranted.

Experts are almost always provided by the system administration and offer one-sided information that favors the administration’s interests. The issues are framed the way the administration wants them framed and the facts presented are those that fit its agenda.

But board members are appointed by the legislation to ensure that the system meets the needs of the state and not just the needs of self-interested administrators, politicians, and faculty members. This “asymmetry of information” problem severely hampers the BOG’s ability to govern responsibly; if board members only hear one-side of the issue, then how good can their decision-making be?

Certainly, this problem is not unique to the UNC system, or university systems in general. Nor is it new. According to the Heritage Foundation, a majority of experts or “witnesses” testifying before the U.S. Congress in 1995 were either federal employees or worked for federal grant recipients.

The situation at UNC is even more severe; so far in 2012, all but one policy presentation at the UNC Board of Governors general meetings has been given by a UNC employee. While some testimony by UNC employees is necessary—they have intimate knowledge of the system and its budget—the administration’s control of speakers and information suggests a conflict of interest.

The August meeting of the BOG kicked off discussion of long-range planning, certainly a crucial function of the BOG. The university system’s previous long-term plan, entitled “UNC Tomorrow,” predates the economic downturn and is now largely obsolete.

It is therefore imperative for the board members to revisit the “big picture.” Unfortunately, rather than receiving the well-rounded information from differing viewpoints needed to set a wise agenda, they were fed multiple sources advancing the same viewpoint. All they heard was that states need to spend more on higher education and increase the number of college graduates to meet the supposed future needs of the economy.

That was certainly the message given at the meeting by speaker John Wynne, the former CEO of Landmark Communications (and the sole presenter to the BOG this year from outside the system). He is part of a coalition of business leaders, the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, that is pushing the Virginia public higher education system to produce 100,000 more graduates than it currently does. The Council also aggressively promotes increased levels of state spending for public higher education.

In addition to Wynne’s talk, two PowerPoint presentations were distributed for governors to read in advance. (The pre-meeting materials have disappeared from the BOG website.) The advance materials were produced by the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO). SHEEO is hardly an impartial source of information; it exists to represent the interests of high-ranking administrators at state universities, and does so vigorously.

For example, in one previous study that SHEEO produced to counter criticism of excessive non-faculty staffing at universities, the researchers blatantly cherry-picked its data points to suggest that staffs were shrinking instead. The Pope Center’s own research revealed that staffing in the UNC system shrank for a limited time—corresponding to the time period selected by SHEEO—but that the real long-term trend has been toward more staffing per student, not less.

The advice by Wynne and SHEEO to “invest” more in higher education is merely an opinion, not a fact. While their opinion is the prevailing view in most establishment circles, a competing perspective is rapidly gaining credibility—too many students are going to college, causing distortions in the economy.

This emerging view is corroborated by serious evidence, such as the trend of increasing numbers of college graduates working at jobs that do not require college degrees (now over 30 percent), or the likely presence of a college “bubble” akin to the housing bubble that precipitated the economic downturn.

The emerging view has already become mainstream—it is frequently discussed on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Chronicle of Higher Education. Its absence from the long-term planning discussion of a major university system is a grave omission. By providing only information supporting the prevailing view that state university systems should grow dramatically in students, funding, and the scope of its endeavors, UNC’s general administration skewed the dialogue.

Obviously, the BOG’s eventual agenda for the university system might be very different if dissenting views were considered.

A second presenter at the August meeting, UNC-Chapel Hill business professor James Johnson, mostly stuck to factual demographic data during his talk. But the data came from a paper he coauthored with Allan Parnell, entitled “North Carolina in Transition: Demographic Shifts during the First Decade of the New Millennium,” which was also distributed to BOG members prior to the meeting. That paper’s recommendations are extremely radical.

For one thing, it argues that, because some ethnic groups and some regions of North Carolina are more prosperous than others, it is necessary to create a “new political map and system of electoral representation that will enable us to brand the State as a sustainable place to do live and do business.” 

The paper does not say exactly what must be changed or how or by whom, only that “concerted efforts are needed to eliminate both geographical and racial disparities in human development in North Carolina.”  However, it offers some indications that it will hardly be the sort of process our Founding Fathers had in mind. These indications include Johnson’s desire to restructure our political and economic systems according to the “triple bottom line principles of sustainability—social justice and equity (people), environmental (planet), and shareholder/stakeholder value (profit).”

Johnson’s paper promotes the sort of forced redistribution of wealth and power that undermines prosperity and liberty. His ideas belong on the fevered sidewalks of an Occupy Wall Street camp, not in the pre-meeting materials for a serious board of university governance.

If ever there was a time for the BOG to assert its independence from the system’s General Administration, it is now, when a vision for the future is being crafted.

Historically, the BOG has passively submitted to the desires of the administration, ignoring that they have been selected by the legislature to represent the state and the taxpayers. This is a problem not just in North Carolina, but all across the country—governing bodies are “managed” by the institutions, not the other way around, as it should be.

One promising solution is to make boards more independent by giving them control over expert testimony. The UNC BOG could hire its own executive director to independently select the information provided to board members, to ensure that board members hear more than one side before making decisions that will affect the entire state for decades to come.

In North Carolina, this could be accomplished with a mere $200,000 appropriation from the legislature—an investment that could save many millions of dollars going forward. That is a small price to pay for truly independent governance—the only reason for the Board of Governors to exist.