A New Chapter in UNC Board Governance

It’s been a couple of months since Randy Ramsey became the chairman of the University of North Carolina System Board of Governors. Since his appointment in October, Ramsey’s tenure has been enveloped in the ongoing saga surrounding the Silent Sam monument. But even though the monument consumes headlines, many other important issues go before the board on a regular basis.

Some of those decisions directly affect academics. In March, for example, the members of the board will vote on whether they will significantly alter the system’s minimum admissions requirements. Other decisions affect costs. Just last week, the board had a tuition and fees workshop where they discussed the future price tag of a UNC school education.

Under Ramsey’s leadership, the board will oversee system-wide initiatives aimed at student success, such as finding ways to help students graduate in a timely manner. They will make budget decisions, vote on the establishment of academic programs, and shape the university system’s overall mission and direction.

Ramsey was appointed to the board in 2017 and served as vice chair prior to becoming chairman. He also co-chairs the UNC system presidential search committee. A businessman from eastern North Carolina, Ramsey brings valuable project management experience to the board. He is the founder and president of Jarrett Bay Boatworks, a company that makes custom sport fishing boats. He is also a partner and board member of Bluewater Yacht Sales.

The Martin Center sat down with Ramsey to discuss his vision and goals for the UNC system.

Student success is central to the university’s mission. What are some of the student success initiatives the system is working on that you are most excited about?

Student success is probably the most important thing we work on here. Trying to get students in here and out of here with a degree that they can use once they get out; being able to support their families, not having too much student debt. There are a number of things that I am pretty excited about. I am really excited about the Partly Home initiative that is going on on every one of our campuses. That is my favorite initiative because we have students who left the universities with some amount of credit for some unknown reason and who are still in good standing; they are given an opportunity to finish their degree. Maybe there were financial issues, maybe there were health issues. I think we have a great opportunity there to bring some of those people back, finish those degrees, and help them improve their lives.

What do you see as the board’s role in keeping institutions accountable for student success?

The board’s role, from my personal perspective, is simply governance. Our job is to try to put the guardrails around—[and define] our expectations for each of our universities and how they are going to go forward in ensuring student success. They’re actually doing a pretty good job so far; eleven of our twelve strategic plan goals have been met or exceeded, so maybe we should have shot higher.

We’re graduating more students now than in the history of our university, it’s just over 71 percent in a five-year period. We are providing more degrees per state dollar than in any time in 10 years. I think that some of the [student success] initiatives at the campus level and at the board level are clearly working. I do think every single person on our board is focused on ensuring student success and that’s always at the forefront.

There’s been a lot of progress on transparency in the UNC system, the availability of both the public comment period and live streaming of the full board meetings have been improvements. But committee meetings are still not live-streamed, as well as other special meetings of the board by conference call. If a member of the public wants to hear what is said, they are required to attend in person. Another concern is that the public often isn’t informed of the board’s meeting schedule until a few days before they occur. Are there plans to increase transparency?

As the board chair, I’m committed to transparency. There are times when we don’t have as much lead as we like in order to get the word out about a board meeting or a committee meeting. Because, as you witnessed here a couple of weeks ago, we had to move fairly quickly with an issue that needed to be taken care of.

I think that when we get the idea about streaming committee meetings or the possibility of streaming some of our special meetings, one of the things I am really concerned about is the financial burden on the system in order to do that. I think that, yes, while that would be a wonderful thing to do, I think we need to weigh back and forth how much we want to use those dollars for student success: Is that more important than streaming every meeting we do?

And I know [our media relations staff] reach out to you all when we’re about to have a meeting and try to give you as much lead time as possible, and also give you some idea of what you can expect. Going in, sometimes we know what’s going to happen, sometimes we don’t.

One of the goals of the UNC system’s strategic plan is to highlight the diversity of the institutions and how each one of them is individually distinct. What are some examples of how schools are doing this?

When the system was put together in 1971, when the legislature and the leaders of our state had a vision for consolidating our university, that was part of the mission: Let’s understand the role of each of these campuses, let’s make sure we’re not duplicating unless it needs to be duplicated, and let’s make sure we go forward in such a way that we are complementing each other and complementing the regions that we’re in. I think the university has done a pretty good job of that.

Dr. Roper and I just had a conversation about the mission statement of our various campuses and we are about to launch into a study at the system office about that; to ensure that we’re still doing our role in governance in ensuring that each of these campuses is staying within that model that we started with back in the 1970s.

I know each of our campuses is very unique—not only from the standpoint of geography, but also in the needs they are trying to meet locally, or in the case of our two flagship universities, globally. It allows them to be more agile in their communities, it allows them to support industry or agriculture or whatever may be the largest importer in that region; it might well be the health care they provide and the health care professionals who are graduating and helping these rural regions.

I think if you look for specific ways they [the schools] are trying to advertise themselves, I can’t think of a better job than what NC State did with that astronaut [Christina Koch] recently and what Science and Math did with that: Showing that this young lady goes and circles Earth for about 300 days. I think that highlights what the School of Science and Math is able to do and also highlights the engineering program at NC State.

The state budget is still in gridlock. How much is the standstill affecting the UNC system schools?

The budget that was passed in the House and Senate was the best budget for the university in quite some time. There was over $600 million in new facility money, 2.5 percent raises for our employees this year, and another 2.5 percent next year. It’s important that our biggest asset, our employees, continue to stay here.

There was funding for the School of Science and Math’s western campus and a myriad other things that have to be addressed. It’s affecting every one of our campuses. Science and Math is one where I’m personally disappointed that we can’t find a way to move forward, but the money simply isn’t there to start a program and hire faculty. We will announce in the next day or so that we’re going to delay opening it for a year. So there’s a real tangible something you can touch.

When we look at the Brody School of Medicine, the needs in rural eastern North Carolina, that is a huge impact for eastern North Carolina. We’ve got an increased number of health care professionals we’re educating in east North Carolina and we can’t do that without that funding. This is really impacting [the schools]. I’m not going to personally place the blame anywhere, I don’t think there is any blame. To blame anyone specifically doesn’t work, there’s no reason for that. I think the message for the university is: The university needs to budget. It’s pretty critical that we find a way to move forward.

Total capital spending at UNC has been increasing over the years. What is a sustainable path forward for UNC?

When we look at the brick and mortar of our campuses, I think we need to thoughtfully think about how education will be delivered ten years from now or twenty years from now. I personally do not think it will all be online. But I also do not think it’s all going to be in a classroom of several hundred students. I think that as we move forward as a board and with our new president, those are questions that have to be answered.

I think that at every campus it’s no different than my personal business: We love to have a bright, nice, shiny new building, and it attracts students and it attracts faculty, and all of those things are critically important to the success of that particular campus. But, what is a sustainable path? I personally don’t think the path we’re on. We have to address the estimated $1.5 billion in repair and renovation that we’re not addressing. And as we continue to put more buildings online, all we’re doing is adding to that issue going forward.

What is the status of the UNC system president search?

We’ve been very quiet, which was our intent because we wanted to try and find the best person for our system going forward. I will share with you that I am thrilled with the amount of applications we’ve received, with the amount of interest we’ve had, and the amount of people we’ve reached out to and said “I’m really humbled that you would even consider me and, yes, I would like to talk about it.” I’m really enthusiastic about it.

The cost of tuition and fees is an ongoing concern in higher education and in North Carolina. Student fees in particular continue to rise each year, and the additional price tag which is separate from tuition often takes students and parents by surprise. What is the system doing to help keep the cost of tuition and student fees down?

Tuition hasn’t been raised in three years. Our tuition increase average over the last four years is about 1.4 percent. This board and each board of trustees at the campus level understand that this is something we’re all focused on. I think we all take our state’s Constitution very much to heart in the fact that we should provide an education to people in our state as close to free as practicable. I think we all take that very seriously.

The fee portion of it has increased more quickly than tuition has. We’ve seen the fees, I think over the last four years, increase about just over an average of 2.2 percent. That’s something that a couple of our board members are extremely focused on; they’ve really been diving into [the issue of student fees] and are trying to understand exactly what the fees are for and exactly what services they provide and, frankly, are those services needed? Is that something where we could save some money on?

I think you’re going to continue seeing our board being very spirited and working hard to try and keep those costs down. One of the things I am really focused on is providing parents and students with not just the cost of tuition and fees but the total cost of attendance at any one of our universities. And we need to make sure they have that the day they apply, so that they aren’t caught off guard. We all know that the fee structure is very different than tuition, it can be used differently, but it also provides services that tuition unfortunately doesn’t have the dollars to be able to do.

Rural areas in the state face difficult challenges. As someone who is from eastern North Carolina, what do you see as the biggest challenges for colleges in those areas?

The rural-urban divide in our state is growing quickly. And as we’re seeing that happen, we’re seeing rural North Carolina becoming poorer and poorer—east and west. A perfect example of that was Pitt County, which became a tier 1 county very recently. When you think about the fact there’s one of our universities there with 30,000 students—and I’m guessing about 5,000 staff and the largest hospital in the region—and it’s still a tier 1 county, then I think this is an opportunity to think about just how poor the rest of that county must be. I think our universities play a huge role in the way that we can help rural North Carolina improve.

I think it is incumbent on all of us to ensure rural access to our universities. I think last year we graduated 1,300 more students from tier 1 and tier 2 counties which I’m very proud of. But we’re not doing a good enough job; each one of our campuses needs to play a role in that, not just the ones located in those sections.

Elizabeth City State University is the model I like using as much as anywhere. Here we had a university that was basically bankrupt and we saw their board of trustees and a group of the board of governors get together and work together to find solutions so that it could be a viable campus. The fine leadership that was brought in [helped] and NC Promise helped the people in that region have an affordable option for a four-year university. We’ve seen campuses like Elizabeth City put together programs like their aviation program—filling a need in an industry that is running out of pilots and running out of aviation management, aviation mechanics. And [it’s great] seeing people being able to go there for that cost and come out with a great opportunity for their life.

Shannon Watkins is a senior writer at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.