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.

  • DrOfnothing

    I don’t see how one can offer these incredibly loaded questions, which clearly demonstrate a massive ideological bias, and then assert that the General Assembly must look for “independent board members.”

    The most important questions to ask are, obviously:

    1.) Will you protect and support Higher Education in North Carolina?

    2.) Will you do your best to adopt policies that balance the interests of students, faculty, and other stakeholders in the NC HE system?

    3.) Will you promise not to be unduly influenced by lobbyists or self-proclaimed policy experts in the pay of private interests (e.g. Art Pope)?

    In any case, the BOGs primary role is oversight, budged concerns, and fundraising. It is not to, nor was it ever meant to, dictate educational policy or day to day management. That it does so at all in recent years is the result of intense political pressure (from McRory and Pope), which makes them anything but “independent.”

  • tal9000

    Interviews with prospective BOG members might want to touch on how one interprets this:

    The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense. –North Carolina Constitution, Article IX, Section 9

    • DrOfnothing

      Absolutely, and the sensible way to make college more affordable would be returning state/public investment through a small tax hike, which would allow the UNC system to lower tuition and offer more scholarships. The JMC, however, consistently argues against this. They are under the mistaken impression that somehow administrative salaries (which form a miniscule proportion of the overall university costs) and Title IX are responsible for rising college costs, which is absolutely wrong. The real causes are declining state support and the competition for students foisted by the “market-based” approached that is strongly _advocated_ here. In other words, the problem JMC harps about is caused by the same policy they ardently support!

      • Ac Ellis

        Shouldn’t your use of the acronym “The JMC” be preceded by the complete spelling? Took me awhile to figure out who or what you were referring to.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        The Part Two CNBC report was awesome, with some of the best interactive economic graphics that I have seen. Here is Part One.

        I was excited by references in Part Two to the Great Recession as a key driver of States cutting back on their support of public schools. This is rarely mentioned by those that bemoan the decline of State support, which can be traced back to 2007-2008 financial collapse of the markets. Kudos to CNBC.

      • Frank Underwood

        60% of the salary dollars paid in the UNC system go to employees that have nothing to do with instruction, that is a little bit more than a minuscule proportion.

        • DrOfnothing

          I should have been more clear. The majority is for ordinary administrative staff that make less than 50k/annually. Salary is any university’s no.1 expense, but very little is admin. at high salary. Bureaucracy costs, but is generally necessary.

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      The deeper irony, I think, is that movement toward the “free of expense” postsecondary goal will (or IS) having the reverse effect — the over-production of undergraduate degrees now requires over-investment in graduate degrees; which is lose-lose for students, states, parents, home construction industry, and the rest of us. Part One covered this under “credentialism,” but BOG is captive to a myopic paradigm with what William Blake called “mind-forg’d manacles.” There is no escape from $2 trillion dollar federal student loan debt, there is no escape that I see.

  • Jim Lee III

    My alma mater UNC Chapel Hill just hired a Vice Chancellor for Ethics, what a load of crap. Person is probably making 200k or so, do we really need someone to tell the university that it should always be doing the correct, ethical thing 100% of the time? Shame on Foltz for this hire and for sticking it to the taxpayer.

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      The actual salary and fringe benefits are public records, so you should be able to ask the public records officer to email you the exact amounts. There is no need to speculate, just ask.

      • Jim Lee III

        You missed my point, why did UNC feel compelled to have a person in this role to begin with no matter their salary? Terrible misuse of public funds imo.

        • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

          You missed my point about fact checking. Wouldn’t it also be appropriate to ask for a job description at the same time? That way you’d kill two birds with one stone.

    • DrOfnothing

      I think you misunderstand the person’s role. It’s to avoid running afoul of the law and for dealing with potential lawsuits, especially with regards for university-funded scientific research, public safety, and employment/welfare issues. The school has to make sure it is in compliance with, for example, how it handles animal experimentation and the storage and transport of hazardous materials. A secondary role is ethics issues with regards to fair employment, hiring, EEOC, and student welfare.

      Given that the JMC writers have ardently supported FIRE’s call for private citizens to sue universities over free speech issues, it seems that they will need more such legal expertise (the cost of which would be born by students and taxpayers) in future, unfortunately.