The Next UNC President Should be a Reformer, Not a Caretaker

The most important decision that the University of North Carolina system’s Board of Governors will make this year is the selection of the next system president. Board members have an excellent opportunity to find someone willing to initiate a badly needed departure from the university establishment’s status quo.

For over 40 years, since its inception in 1972, two themes have dominated the university system’s activities and growth. The first is that a university is an institution of the political left. The second is that the university system can be all things for all people. These themes are enforced by long established interests that have been allowed to flourish under past administrations. The selection of current president Thomas Ross’s successor in the fall can put an end to the dominance of both the expansive vision and the bias.

In other words, board members have a chance to find someone who will represent what’s best for all of the Tar Heel State, not just powerful constituencies that incessantly seek either more tax dollars or freedom from oversight.

In the hope of sparking a substantive debate about the UNC system presidency, today we offer our views on what presidential philosophy and characteristics will most benefit the UNC system and the North Carolina public that supports it.

In a nutshell, UNC needs a reformer. Above all else, whoever takes office next January should recognize that UNC is a system in need of serious reform, not just minor tweaking and tinkering. The five-year scandal occurring at the flagship campus at Chapel Hill, recently resulting in punishment by its accrediting agency, underscores the need for more oversight and stronger leadership.

Often, reform begins with transparency; it enables watchdogs to serve in the people’s interest identifying waste and corruption. The new president should be clearly in favor of ending the system’s secretive practices.

Good stewardship means a more constrained vision of the university system than has been in effect. It cannot be a cure-all for every economic and social problem, as it has been regarded in recent years. First and foremost, a university is an educational institution, and the new president, whatever his or her background before assuming control of the system, should regard him- or herself as an educator.

Too often, the expansive view of the system that is now in place is manifested in grand schemes that are beyond the natural scope of educational institutions. The new president should question whether it is truly a university’s job to develop the economy through public-private partnerships, to be a public health care agency, or to effect radical social transformations.

Because the expansive view has been in place for so long, the next system president needs to be a voice of reason, with the principles and courage to say “no” to vested interests used to getting their own way.

That means the new president will require a thick skin, a strong spine, and an iron will. Change will be intensely resisted, and North Carolina politics are not for the faint of heart. The new president should recognize that professors and university officials are self-interested, too, and not always thinking in terms of what’s best for students or taxpayers. And that other “stakeholders” are representing selfish interests outside the university.

Another important quality for the new system president is knowledge of the major ideas and intellectual trends dominating academia. For only then can he or she grasp how far to the left academia has drifted, and that ideas are being preached in university classrooms that are counterproductive to the development of young people (and society as well).

Along with such knowledge, a top executive should also possess a healthy skepticism and an innate curiosity. Because information from inside the system is likely to be chosen to support the entrenched interests, he or she should realize that information needs to come from multiple sources (including from critics such as the Pope Center). Rocks need to be turned over to see what is hidden underneath, closets need to be checked for skeletons, and tough questions need to be asked no matter whose oxen they gore.

The next president’s concept of “diversity” should extend beyond skin color; it should encompass ideological diversity, too. Building character and intellect—two main goals of education—requires that students be exposed to a range of ideas and opinions, challenged intellectually rather than protected emotionally. Catering to extremes of political correctness dampens intellectual vibrancy and leave students ill-prepared for life’s tribulations.

The UNC system is a massive, multi-billion-dollar enterprise—one that’s facing a shifting and unpredictable higher education landscape. Therefore, the next president should have demonstrated in previous positions that he or she is a savvy leader open to bold ideas and innovations. Such openness will prove advantageous when faced with the growing array of new educational approaches, such as competency-based learning, hybrid courses, and active learning that have the potential to improve students’ performance.

But successful leadership within the confines of the Ivory Tower is not enough—it is too likely that a lifelong academic would defend the status quo rather than change it. In an era of bloated university administrations, UNC needs a leader who has internalized the cost-cutting mindset of the private sector. The UNC system is a fat target for one who wishes to promote efficiency, filled with such wasteful practices as leaving faculty positions empty despite receiving funding for them. A 1971 law mandates that the system “encourage an economical use of the state’s resources;” it would be good if the new president framed that statement and put it on the wall of his or her office for a daily reminder.

While the sort of person who possesses all of the above qualities is rare, they do exist. Finding just such a person to fill the president’s chair is the best hope for having a university that serves the state and its people, and not entrenched interests.