Five Questions to Ask Future UNC Board Members

Since 2010, the UNC system’s Board of Governors has become somewhat more conservative and more interested in serious educational reforms. Members of the Board have professed interest in decreasing costs, rolling back university mission creep, and improving academic standards. But progress has been slow.

Part of the problem can be attributed to the structure of the Board itself. It is large and unwieldy. Because of that, power tends to be concentrated in the Board chair and committee chairs. The General Assembly’s plan to shrink the board from 32 to 24 members over the next four years will help to make the board more efficient.

However, even with that change, there still exists a natural asymmetry of information between the Board and the UNC system. Board members are part-time volunteers who rely on UNC’s professional staff to follow through on their directives and inquiries. Board members necessarily see a distilled and simplified version of the information that is relevant to their decisions.

But there are other problems.

At a 2009 event for the UNC Board of Governors, Ohio University economist and higher education expert Richard Vedder painted a dismal picture of board governance: “A majority of boards do not fully exercise their fiduciary responsibilities to the broader public, they tend on average to be excessively co-opted by the university administration, and they regard their role more as a cheerleading and administrative and financial support role than a serious outside force helping direct the university in both defining and achieving its mission.”

As I wrote here, very few members vote “no” on anything. Even controversial policy changes, such as raising tuition and fees and lowering admissions standards, have passed with votes of 22 to 9 and 25 to 4, respectively.

That’s why, going forward, prospective Board members should show independence and a desire to ask probing questions. And they must be willing to vote “no,” even when the universities in the system want them to vote “yes.” Finding such people is hard.

Although almost everyone who wants to be on the board is qualified “on paper” (with significant business or government experience and a record of volunteer service), it doesn’t follow that they are necessarily the right fit to address North Carolina’s unique and challenging higher education problems.

Therefore, members of the General Assembly who interview candidates need to ask a few hard questions of their own to determine whether nominees possess the tenacity and courage to be real reformers:

  • Throughout much of the UNC-Chapel Hill athletic-academic scandal, the UNC Board of Governors and then-president Tom Ross were slow to officially scrutinize the school’s leadership and athletics department. They continued to support Chancellor Holden Thorp and failed to launch an independent investigation until the situation became too serious to ignore. For their inaction, the Board and the system came under serious criticism from local news outlets and athletics enthusiasts who believed that UNC Chapel Hill was receiving special treatment. What would you have done about UNC Chapel Hill’s athletics/academic scandal?
  • In 2015, the Board of Governors closed three campus centers, including UNC’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. The Board’s action came after a seven-member working group evaluated centers and institutes on factors such as research output and how well they fit with the university’s mission. Some of the centers had engaged in partisan political activity, in violation of system standards. Although the group eventually validated 207 of the 240 centers and institutes in the system, it received intense pushback from administrators and faculty. Do you believe it was within the Board’s purview to conduct a comprehensive review of centers and institutes in the UNC system?
  • The College Board says that incoming students need to score at least 1030 on the SAT in order to succeed at college-level work. The UNC system’s current minimum admission score is 800. As a result, many unqualified students are admitted to UNC schools only to drop out. The six-year graduation rate at some of our schools is less than 50 percent! How should the Board address issues related to academic standards?
  • Over the years, Centennial Campus at NC State has had great success. But other counties lack Wake County’s favorable socioeconomic conditions, such as an educated workforce, booming real estate market, etc. Not every campus can turn itself into a successful public-private research hub and create economic prosperity. More often, such ventures cause millions of taxpayer dollars to be wasted and benefit at best a small segment of the campus community or well-connected industries, rather than the overall university or local populations. Should universities invest in public-private research parks?
  • In 2015, the UNC Board of Governors raised chancellor pay in closed session, despite complaints from some members. Many non-instructional staff at UNC campuses engage in activism instead of education. And at most UNC schools, the ratio of administrators to faculty is nearly two to one. The current system is unsustainable. Those who have no real connection to improving academics and student success should not be allowed to live “high on the hog” at the public’s expense. How would you deal with administrative bloat in the UNC system?

Ultimately, the General Assembly must look for independent board members. The questions above are a good starting point in terms of identifying the real problems in the system and working toward finding real solutions. Of course, there won’t be full agreement on the answers to these questions, or perhaps even their premises. That’s healthy. But the worst answer would be, “I’ll do whatever the administration recommends.” The UNC Board of Governors has an important oversight and governing purpose. It should be more than a rubber stamp.