As a college professor from the Midwest, I usually shy away from commenting on higher-education policy issues in other parts of the country. But North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s November executive order creating a commission to examine the governance of the UNC System caught my attention.
I have had memorable encounters with both of the persons Gov. Cooper made co-chairs of his commission: former UNC presidents Thomas Ross (2011-16) and Margaret Spellings (2016-19).
As U.S. Secretary of Education, Spellings in 2005 appointed me to her Commission on the Future of Higher Education. A few years later, the Martin Center’s George Leef and I debated her (and United Negro College Fund head Michael Lomax) at the National Press Club in Washington, an event that was televised nationally by PBS.
Any significant changes in the way UNC is governed will almost certainly require legislative approval.Fast forward a few more years (to 2013, I think), and I was asked to speak before a meeting of the UNC Board of Governors attended by President Ross. Specifically, the discussion revolved around the role of the governing board and senior administrators in making university decisions, a key issue now facing Gov. Cooper’s new commission.
Before discussing the new commission, I would point out that its powers are zero. The appointing governor is a Democrat (indeed, chair of the national Democratic Governors Association) in a state that has a supermajority of Republicans in its Senate and a near supermajority in its House of Representatives (71 of 120 seats). Any significant changes in the way UNC is governed will almost certainly require legislative approval.
The Board of Governors is currently appointed entirely by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Therefore, the Cooper initiative might appropriately be viewed as an attempt to wrestle control of UNC away from a Republican-dominated group.
Polls show that public confidence in higher education is at a low ebb, a perspective supported by declines in national university enrollment for over a decade. The public does not seem very happy with the way universities are run. The need for outside checks on campus actions appears greater than ever, so the relevance of governing boards is probably growing.
Nationally, governing boards of state universities are picked in a variety of different ways, including election by the public, appointment by the governor (sometimes with legislative concurrence), and selection by the legislature. In multi-campus systems such as North Carolina’s, sometimes local university boards exist, as well, so that schools like North Carolina State and Appalachian State have boards dealing with matters specific to those campuses. Nationally, the length of board membership varies widely, from as little as four years to as many as ten.
In my 2013 UNC Board of Governors appearance, I stressed that governing boards are often intentionally misled by university administrations. They depend on the president of the school and other top aides for information on what is happening on campus. But university presidents have powerful incentives (involving their own job-security and compensation) to provide rosy, good news about what is happening on campus, and they often downplay or ignore important developments that they do not want the board investigating.
Governing boards are often intentionally misled by university administrations.I argued in favor of the UNC Board of Governors appointing its own person to communicate with them directly, completely independent of the administration. Needless to say, President Ross was not smiling as I made those remarks, but I think it was good advice then and good advice today.
By contrast, powerful groups within university communities usually argue, “We need our independence and freedom from political interference. Just give us money (lots of it) and we will govern ourselves. You (governor, legislature, university governing board) should stay out of university affairs, such as trying to hire or fire the football coach or deciding on required curriculum. We hire administrators and faculty to make those decisions.”
Political leaders might appropriately respond: “It is irresponsible simply to give you large sums of money, particularly in light of numerous national examples of outrageous campus behavior—for example the suppression of the right of students and faculty to express themselves without fear of retribution, the amassing of a costly and academically debilitating administrative bloat, embarrassing evidence that many students either do not graduate in a timely manner or do not get good jobs after graduation, etc. Responsible outside adult oversight is required.”
Gov. Cooper is likely politically motivated in picking his commission, but he has one legitimate point.
Suppose that one year, a Republican-dominated board selected by elected politicians mandates that Critical Race Theory courses shall not be required, perhaps not even offered, and that professorial tenure is abolished.
Further suppose that the next year, a Democrat-dominated board comes in, restores tenure, and mandates the teaching of an American history course centered around the historically dubious (to put it charitably) “1619 Project” of the New York Times. The curriculum and other policies could oscillate frequently with a changing electoral climate rather than remaining true to time-tested, widely accepted, universal principles.
Therefore, there is perennially an issue concerning how much involvement governing boards should have in university affairs. One radical but interesting solution would be for state governments to get completely out of the business of owning and running universities. Instead, they might allow schools like UNC to charge whatever fees they want, free them up from many state regulations (including the composition of the governing board), and end their state subsidies, henceforth giving money to consumers (students) not producers (universities). Scholarships would make up the costs associated with higher tuition fees at the newly privatized schools, in an arrangement somewhat similar to that of some charter schools at the pre-college level.
One radical solution would be for state governments to get completely out of the business of owning universities.Part of this would involve making the various UNC campuses into truly separate universities. Students would receive state scholarships to an institution that is now part of the UNC System and that could be adjusted on the basis of both merit and need. Better students would get more money than mediocre ones, and financially strapped students would get more than students from affluent families.
In time, the system could be altered further to allow scholarship recipients to attend private North Carolina schools like Duke, Wake Forest, Davidson, Elon, or High Point, or perhaps even out-of-state institutions.
The UNC public-school collegiate monopoly would end, and institutions could, over time, evolve to maximize their distinctive strengths. Each school would have its own governing board, with differing criteria for board membership, term of office, and involvement in university decision-making.
An alternative and far less radical move would involve reducing the existing UNC-System board size from the rather unwieldy 24 members to no more than 15. It would also make the term of appointment longer, possibly six or eight years, as it takes time for board members to familiarize themselves with university operations. We might also stagger the terms, so perhaps only two to four appointments would be made annually.
In the longer term, we might perhaps move to a system where both the executive and legislative branches of government are involved in board appointments.
The state should also consider including the public via elections. How about a board that is one-third appointed by the legislature, one-third appointed by the executive (the governor), and one third selected by the public? While most members of the public are ignorant about potential governing-board personalities, their judgments might be at least as good as those of politicians.
Richard K. Vedder is a distinguished professor of economics emeritus at Ohio University and a senior fellow at the Independent Institute.