“Rubber stamping” is the norm at the State Board of Community Colleges

Attend a North Carolina State Board of Community Colleges meeting and you are likely to fall asleep as board members and community college system office staffers take turns dispassionately checking off the month’s agenda items to unanimous approval.

True, many of the action items that come before the board are routine, self-explanatory, or otherwise unworthy of close examination. Board members are called upon to approve new courses, salary increases, and tinker with wording in various legal documents. Community college business lacks the glamour and excitement of what goes on at a university system that includes a top public research university like UNC-Chapel Hill.

But what will happen when a board accustomed to passivity is faced with an uncommonly game-changing proposal? According to some board members, not much.

Such game-changing proposals are right around the corner. President Obama has proposed to make the first two years of community college tuition free for graduating high school students. Some states, including North Carolina, have adopted or are considering four-year baccalaureate degrees—a major departure for traditional two-year colleges. Both the president and Governor McCrory have championed initiatives that would spur more vocational training by community colleges.

Can North Carolina’s community college system address these issues? Some members of the state board are worried that the board is just too passive to take them on effectively.

At a meeting of the state board on January 16, board member James J. Woody, Jr., voiced his concern about the board going through the motions. Woody, who is retired from Burlington-based Chandler Concrete, has been on the board for about 25 years and is a former chairman. He claims that recently, he is so often the only member who opens his mouth that he thinks “some people sort of cringe” when he asks questions.

At the meeting, Woody alleged that the board has violated state law by not meeting annually with two other education bodies—the UNC Board of Governors and the State Board of Education.

“The thing that disturbs me is that I took an oath to this board to uphold the laws of North Carolina,” Woody said.

Chapter 115D of the state’s general statutes requires that the three boards hold joint meetings at least once a year, with the boards alternately hosting the meetings.

However, Joni B. Worthington, vice president for communications at the UNC system, said she believes the last “formal joint meeting” was in 2010 and called by Governor Bev Perdue. If that is the case, Woody is right that his board, and the other two boards, have been violating the law for four consecutive years.

After that criticism, Woody called out his fellow members for submissiveness. “I’m saying right now that rubber stamping is coming back. And I’m encouraging each board member to get involved.”

In an interview with the Pope Center after the meeting, Woody expanded on his frustration at the failure of the board to grapple with important issues.

I wanted so bad to ask a question to the board members: Why are you on this board? Is it just because somebody says, ‘We need somebody to fill in a spot?’ Or is it just simply because it’s going to look good in your obituary or on the tombstone, that you served at this particular job?”

The biggest problem, he feels, is that a lot of information fails to reach the board—but they don’t insist on getting it. Woody said that members “take for granted that we have asked all the questions and got all the answers, but we haven’t.”

Even when board members do get information during their individual committee meetings—which feature a mix of board members and system staff—that information often never makes it to the full board, according to Woody.

One example that might illustrate Woody’s claim:

At the January full board meeting, a staff member repeated the frequently stated claim that there is a coming shortage of nurses. This is important because the community college system is considering whether to offer bachelor’s degrees in nursing. An ad hoc committee is meeting regularly to obtain information about the economic need for nurses (its next meeting is this week).

However, less than two weeks before the board meeting, at the most recent meeting of the nursing committee, an analyst from the Sheps Center for Health Services Research at UNC-Chapel Hill disputed the claim of a nursing shortage. In her hour-long speech, Erin Fraher explained in detail why she thought the federal government’s data projecting an insufficient supply of nurses was flawed. In particular, she said she does not think there is a nursing shortage in North Carolina and that there will not be one in the future.

This is information that no board members heard in the programs committee discussion on January 15, nor at the meeting of the full board on January 16. The nursing committee, convened by the board, will conclude its study in March. At that point, the board may be asked to vote on whether to begin offering four-year degrees, something only a handful of other state community college systems allow. To be sure, the ad hoc nursing committee is sharing some of its information, but how are board members to know what the committee might be omitting?

One administrator at the community college system said board passivity may not be a sign that they lack necessary information, but rather that they have read and understood the information. Sitting down with the Pope Center, Lisa Chapman, chief academic officer of the community college system and senior staff member on the programs committee and the nursing committee, said she thinks the amount of interaction in the programs committee “depends on what they’re looking at and the level of impact they think it might have.”

“Sometimes state board members ask questions as it’s presented, and sometimes what they’ve seen and what’s been clarified is enough,” Chapman said. She said that while she did not want to speak for the board members, she feels the process for reviewing information is “fairly extensive.”

Woody is not the only board member frustrated about board submissiveness. Wesley Fricks, who was appointed last January by Governor McCrory, is concerned about recent nursing proposals. He said at a January 15 board luncheon that he believes that the board is “capitulating” to an outside agenda. Fricks is the assistant vice president of Charlotte-based Grandbridge Real Estate Capital and a former White House staffer.

He is also a member of the programs committee and on January 15 led a spirited debate in the committee over a proposed agreement to expand a nursing partnership with the UNC system that would make it easier for community college graduates to get bachelor’s degrees at UNC. It was a rare sign of life that provided a counterexample to Woody’s concerns. Still, the discussion was dominated by Chapman and system president Scott Ralls and led to a unanimous committee vote in favor of the proposal.

It is the norm for committees to approve practically all items on the agenda, and in turn, the state board tends to approve most items that come before it.

In his interview with the Pope Center, James Woody said that the responsibility should be on the board members to improve, not on the community college system. But he said that new board members should receive “intense training” in how to do their jobs and what their legal responsibilities are.

That would be a start, but personal motivation and a one-time training session might not go far enough for members serving multi-year and multiple terms. As we have suggested for the UNC Board of Governors, the State Board of Community Colleges would benefit from an executive director or executive secretary who is unaffiliated with the system office.

Jay Schalin, the Pope Center’s director of policy, has written that the Board of Governors suffers from an asymmetrical information problem. He wrote in 2013 that “boards of trustees know much less about an organization than those they are to govern, the hired professional managers and administrators. As a result, boards are susceptible to control by the very administrations they are supposed to oversee.”

An independent executive director would help the state board members, all of whom are part-time and many of whom lead busy lives, to learn about the issues from an independent source—someone besides the system office staff who can keep board members informed of the issues and their ramifications.

While this would be no way to ensure the board serves the public interest, it would at least keep members alert to big issues they should be addressing—and, one hopes, they would even reject a proposal here and there.

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