The UNC Board of Governors Needs Its Own Staff

The University of North Carolina was founded with an excellent governance structure—with one glaring flaw that allows power to be concentrated in the General Administration rather than dispersed between the several branches.

That flaw is the Board of Governors’ dependence on the administration for information. In 2013, I proposed that this problem could be corrected with a relatively minor fix: giving the board its own small staff so that it can have an independent source of information.

Now that provision is made for board staff in the Senate version of the 2018 North Carolina budget, it makes sense to reiterate my reasons for that proposal.

My critique is not intended to disparage the UNC Administration; rather, I merely suggest that each branch of governance has its own interests that may not always match those of other branches. For example, it is natural that university administrators will try to maximize revenues, whereas the Governors best serve taxpayers by emphasizing cost control.

The board, as the representative of the state’s people and taxpayers in the university governance system, is supposed to have oversight over the entire system. Yet because the General Administration controls the flow of information, the board does not fully assert itself. This is because, in the current structure, board members are at a severe disadvantage. They are chosen for their accomplishments in other endeavors; they are busy people who can devote only a few days a month to university system affairs. The administration, on the other hand, has roughly 100 full-time employees and has much closer contact with the rest of the university system.

As a result, board members often only know what they are told by administrators, limiting their understanding of the issues and diminishing their ability to oversee the universities to make sure they are excellent, efficient, ethical, and unbiased. The General Administration, which represents the university itself rather than the citizens of North Carolina, controls the agenda. And it is only human nature that the administration takes advantage of the current way UNC system governance is incentivized.

This imbalance of knowledge resulting in one-sided governance is known as an “asymmetry of information” problem. To address the asymmetry, the Board of Governors needs at least one high-level staff member of its own, who will conduct independent research to identify problems and solutions that the board may otherwise overlook.

After following board activities for the better part of a decade, I witnessed how administrative control of information negatively impacted board decisions, including:

1. Most of the information provided to Governors promotes the administration’s agenda. Wise decision-making requires that decision-makers hear arguments both for and against a proposal, not just information that leads to a foregone conclusion.

2. Important issues are frequently ignored. If the General Administration does not regard an issue worthy of attention, board members often lack the awareness to explore it independently.

3. Board members are often unaware of their own rights and responsibilities, causing them to defer to the administration when they should be asserting themselves.

4. Board members are not always given information in a timely manner. Too often, board votes on important decisions, such as chancellor appointments, are conducted without sufficient time to adequately appraise candidates. Instead, they are routinely given hundreds of pages of information just days before a decision is to be made—hardly enough time to make a proper assessment.

Hiring a board staff will alleviate all of these problems. The cost to maintain staff members will be repaid many times over by bolstering the board’s oversight of expenditures through better information. And governance works best with a serious process of investigation, argumentation, and reconciliation, not when there is no opposition to a single agenda. Such tension between branches is not unnecessarily adversarial; it is merely the by-product of a well-designed system of checks and balances.

Every system needs tweaking from time to time. The time for the Board of Governors to have its own staff has come.

  • DrOfnothing

    It seems completely contrary for a writer for the JMC, which has consistently decried “administrative bloat,” to call for a significant increase in the administrative costs of BOG. But when you consider that this is really part of a long-running campaign to skew the BOG (and through it, the UNC system) towards the ideology that the author and the JMC favors, it makes perfect sense. The legislature and former-governor McRory, with backing from Art Pope, have managed to change the tenor of the BOG to more carefully represent Con, Neocon, and Libertarian views. Now they want to increase its authority. If these reforms are implemented and the political composition of the BOG swings in the other direction, you can bet the farm that the JMC will publish another commentary expressing outrage about the “activist BOG” that is trammeled with “indulgent administrative costs.”

    Again, if the author was just straightforward about it, admitting that this is politically motivated, it wouldn’t be so objectionable. Instead, this proposed reform is disguised in language of “fairness to taxpayers” and “balance of powers,” as if UNC was a sovereign nation rather than an institution dedicated to research, education, and service to the NC community. Beyond the basic inconsistency of this agenda, there are some more specific issues:

    Schalin writes:
    “In the current structure, board members are at a severe disadvantage. They are chosen for their accomplishments in other endeavors; they are busy people who can devote only a few days a month to university system affairs. The administration, on the other hand, has roughly 100 full-time employees and has much closer contact with the rest of the university system.”
    *** Yes, the BOG is an _oversight_ body, not an _administrative_ body. Therefore, it makes no sense whatsoever to increase their authority, let alone the costs of their efforts. They _should_ be getting their information from those who actually know how the system works, rather than from a ad hoc, administrative edifice that is subject to political whims and machinations of lobbyists. JMC authors continually call for a university system that is professionalized rather than politicized, but this reform would only increase the latter.***

    “The General Administration, which represents the university itself rather than the citizens of North Carolina, controls the agenda. And it is only human nature that the administration takes advantage of the current way UNC system governance is incentivized.”
    ***This is a terrible slur against the GA, implying that the are in it only for the money. If they seek to increase revenue, it is to balance the cuts in educational spending that have been the norm in NC (and across the US) for more than a decade now. The GA is, by far, the entity best informed to determine how the UNC system can best conduct its mission of teaching, research, and service, and how it can make sensible decisions about long-term financial planning. Since the JMC represents private business interests (Art Pope, mostly), and most assuredly does _not_ represent NC taxpayers (it’s a lobby/think tank, and there’s nothing democratic about it), the accusation of mercenary, purely self-interested motivation is ironic in the extreme.***

    It is hardly objectionable for an ideological institution like the JMC to try to realize its agenda through political manipulation of the UNC governance structure. But contradicting their own principles of cost-cutting and presenting these reforms as somehow democratic, pragmatic, and objectively necessary for the smooth operation of the UNC system is deceptive.

  • Jane S. Shaw

    Thanks, Jay, for this judicious argument in favor of a significant improvement

  • Scott Lampe

    I would agree with Jay right up to the end.
    His idea for a separate staff assumes that there is a base of knowledge just waiting for some staff person to pick up and deliver to Board members. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Almost everything the board is looking for comes from staff members at GA or from the Universities themselves. As a practical matter, a separate staff won’t be able to deliver information to the board any more timely than what happens today.
    His critiques of the timeliness of information is correct, but that is a scheduling problem, not a staff problem. Scheduling a vote a few days after information is available won’t be solved with new staff. It can only be solved by delaying the vote.
    It is also incumbent upon board members to set the agenda. Too often staff sets the agenda based on what they want/need to get done. This too will not be corrected by more staff. It will be corrected by the Board chairman working with the President to set an agenda. It is also incumbent on Committee chairs to set a progressive agenda for their committee that is reflective of the committee members’ prerogatives.
    I believe the board has the tools they need. They just need to use them.

  • DrOfnothing

    It is very surprising to see a an author for the JMC, which has railed ceaselessly against “administrative bloat” now advocate for . . . administrative bloat. The cost of this would be considerable, since the staff would presumably have to do all their own research and accounting. You would be looking at a staff of 3-4, working full-time. I would estimate a cost, on the low end, of $250k a year to the state taxpayers. So there would have to be strong justification for such a move. And the justification is weak indeed.

    1.) Firstly, the UNC system is not a nation or a state, so arguing for “checks and balances” is both inappropriate and redundant. The UNC system is already subject to oversight by the state legislature and the various state accounting entities. All costs have to be thoroughly justified, and the university’s finances are audited regularly.

    2.) Secondly, there has to be compelling reason to doubt the GA’s information. The author should provide several pertinent examples where the GA has given the BOG inaccurate information. If he cannot, then there is no justification for this considerable expense.

    3.) To imply that the GA is only concerned with bolstering its own revenue is entirely inaccurate. The UNC system is a public, non-profit entity, and their priority is to fulfil their core mission of teaching, research, and service to the NC community. If costs go up, as they have, and state support declines, which it has, then they must find ways to make up the lost revenue. But that is not the same as making revenue generation their core purpose at all.

    4.) This last is more of a larger consideration: the BOG does not represent the the taxpayers. Instead, they represent the party that was in power when each member was appointed. Given the recent Supreme Court ruling on GOP gerrymandering in NC, it’s questionable if even the legislature itself represents the people of NC at all fairly. In any case, with the BOG meeting only rarely, the full-time staff Schalin suggests would, in effect, wield much of the authority invested in the BOG by controlling the flow of information. Since the staff would be appointed, presumably, by the BOG, this would not be a democratic reform at all.

    As a final point, this entire proposal runs contrary to repeated demands by JMC authors that the UNC system respond more to “market forces” and operate more like a business. The reform would not only incur unjustifiable costs, it would also hamper the implementation of changes in UNC governance as BOG members struggle, in the limited time available, to reconcile the information provided by the GA with information provided by their own staff. Any discrepancy could take weeks or even months to resolve, incurring considerable costs in the interim. If the issue at hand was financial–e.g. admissions, student aid, expenditure of state or federal funds–it could prompt further revenue loss, thus stressing the system on two fronts (the added cost of the staff + the costs of delays caused by the staff’s efforts).

    In sum, the potential costs of the proposed reform well outweigh any proposed benefits, and the latter are dubious in any case. A full-time, independent BOG staff is simply not justifiable from a financial standpoint, it is superfluous with regards to oversight, and it holds the potential for an administrative nightmare. If the JMC is sincerely dedicated to a system that runs more efficiently and is more cost-conscious, this is exactly the wrong way to go about it!