When University Governance Fails, Political Leadership Becomes Necessary

Governance of the University of North Carolina system is one of the most difficult—and important—tasks in the state government. The system is a $9 billion operation, with state appropriations to the UNC system making up 12 percent of North Carolina’s budget. It is not merely a financial task, but one that runs the gamut of social and ideological issues.

The system has struggled in recent years to find a proper balance; for instance, a recent controversy sparked by the process used to hire a new UNC president showed that there is a severe paucity of good governance practices and transparency. 

Senator David Curtis (R-Lincoln) has emerged as one of North Carolina’s leading voices for higher education reform. He wrote the following letter, on the topic of “UNC System Policy Change Suggestions” to the UNC board on July 28.

To: UNC Board of Governors

From: Senator David L. Curtis 

Date: July 28, 2015 

Re: UNC System Policy Change Suggestions 

Thank you for your service on the Board of Governors. As a follow-up to my previous correspondence, I would like for you to please consider the following four suggestions for policy changes and thank you in advance for your thoughtful consideration. 

First, implement a minimum 3.0 high school GPA for immediate admission to a UNC campus. Also implement a deferred guaranteed admission program (NCGAP) for high school students earning a 2.50-3.00 GPA once they have earned an associate’s degree at a community college. 

Second, I suggest hiring three full-time staffers who report directly to the BOG. The BOG currently depends on the UNC General Administration staff which has a divided loyalty at best. These three positions, a secretary, research overhead administrator, and accounting advisor, would all be devoted to the BOG. The positions would function as follows:

  1. BOG Secretary—This person would need extensive experience in the world of higher education administration bureaucracy and report directly to the BOG president. They would know the questions to ask to obtain information the BOG needs to meet their objectives. They would help prepare for the BOG meetings and make sure that BOG policy decisions are implemented on a day-to-day basis. The current situation in which the BOG is completely dependent on the UNC General Administration which has a divided loyalty for information and guidance is a major handicap.
  2. Accountant with Higher Education Experience—This person would, again, report directly to the BOG president and have an understanding of the complex $9 billion UNC System budget. Given the UNC System was able to move 75 staff salaries and benefits behind the curtain out of the state appropriation budget to another budget suggests the BOG needs its own person reviewing the budget. They would look at the administrative bloat within the system and suggest budget cuts. As it stands now, it would take several dozen experienced forensic accountants two years to really understand the UNC System budget. 
  3. Research Overhead Receipts Director—Under the direction of the BOG, this person would manage the multi-hundred million dollar federal research grants overhead receipts. Presently, the campus chancellors receiving the grants have complete discretion how these funds are spent. The BOG should be deciding how these funds are spent. 

Thirdly, develop and implement a policy concerning the relative importance of the UNC system core functions: teaching and research. Teaching loads have declined by one third over the years making primary criteria used to determine tenure research. I understand that getting “teacher of the year” awards carry no weight with tenure committees. Thus, it is clear that lucrative research grants that carry generous overhead receipts are now considered vastly more important than good teaching. I suggest that the BOG consider policies restoring balance between teaching and research. 

Finally, I understand that 44 percent of need-based grants go to out-of-state students at one campus; therefore, nearly half of the 15 percent tuition need-based grants funding goes to out of state students. Parents have subsidized the UNC system for decades with their tax money, been compelled to absorb a 52 percent tuition increase and are now clandestinely being forced to subsidize out of state students! I urge you to consider removing this burden from parents, and students, already struggling with high tuition rates.

Thank you for taking the time to read my suggestions. Please understand that I am in no way attempting to tell you how to do your job. I believe we share the same desires to see the best UNC System possible and must be open to ideas about how this mutual goal can be achieved.

Senator David L. Curtis 

Senator Curtis’s suggestions would vastly improve key areas of UNC governance in great need of reform. Several of these ideas originated with the Pope Center, starting with giving the Board of Governors its own executive secretary. The executive secretary could not only provide board members with information but also serve as an ombudsman to process the not infrequent controversies that arise in the system. Adding that function could also prove valuable in many ways.

Senator Curtis has expanded our initial idea by calling for the creation of two financial watchdog positions. It is almost guaranteed that both of those positions will pay for themselves many times over.  

Senator Curtis is not just throwing ideas in the air, but taking action. In the 2015 legislative session, he introduced a bill substitute along the lines of the third suggestion above, calling for the adjustment of faculty teaching loads. 

There are plenty of other ideas that would make the UNC system a more efficient and better-managed system, such as a reduction in the 32-member board. Senator Curtis’s letter is a good start—if put into action.