An Interview with UNC-Chapel Hill Trustee John Preyer

The work of protecting free expression continues at the flagship institution.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees has navigated difficult waters in the past four years. It oversaw pandemic policy, made great strides for free speech, and provided oversight as Carolina recovered from a $100 million structural deficit.

One of the members of that board is John Preyer, an entrepreneur and businessman who currently lives in Chapel Hill. Preyer serves as vice chair of the Board of Trustees and chairs the Committee on Budget, Finance, and Infrastructure.

Recently, the Martin Center sat down with Preyer to discuss his experience on the board and his ideas about higher-education reform. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Martin Center: You’ve been on the Board of Trustees for four years now. What is the most important thing you’ve learned so far?

“It is striking how different people view issues of importance to the university.”John Preyer: I would say that the revelation to me is that it is striking how different people view issues of importance to the university. And by that, I mean that some people tend to view anything that is along the lines of admitting that there is a problem [as] very difficult to do. So I would crystallize it like this: The thing that has been difficult is, it is a challenge to get people to see things the way they actually are, as opposed to the way they either want them to be or that they think they are. Some people don’t ever want to admit that anything is wrong. And some of us have a history of wanting to try and fix things that are wrong. And that’s sort of the dynamic where we have tension.

Martin Center: What has been your biggest challenge in your time on the board?

Preyer: I think it has been trying to get my fellow trustees to recognize the threats to the university’s health and well-being in the future. I have a friend who’s a professor, who characterizes the Carolina way as this: “Hey, we’ve always been great. We’re great now. We’re always going to be great.” As if it’s somehow an entitlement, that we’re going to continue to be a leading, dominant public university into the future. And that’s not the case if we don’t do the things to continually stay great and make ourselves better at the things that we’re not currently great at—but that we have the potential to be great at in the future.

Martin Center: Trustees often fall into two camps: reformers and cheerleaders. Has that been your experience?

Preyer: I think, as a general rule, that’s very true. And I might break it down a little bit more specifically. You’ve got [one] group of people who seek out these positions because they want to defend the status quo. And they are very reluctant to do anything that is going to upset the status quo. And so you’ve got one camp—defenders of the status quo—that would be more your cheerleader types as opposed to reformers. Then you’ve got another group—what I call the pontificators. These would be the people who serve on boards for self-aggrandizement. They want to be a big enchilada in the UNC world. And that’s really what matters [to] most of them. And their driver tends to be access. They want to have access to the people on the academic side. They want to have access to the people in athletics. And then you’ve got a third group, that would be more of the problem-solvers. And that would be the reformer side of the two camps that you describe. And, obviously, I see myself more as a problem-solver. And it kind of gets to what one’s background and experience is, and whether or not you’re used to accepting a narrative of, “Hey, everything’s great. Don’t ask a lot of questions, nothing to see here. Please move on along.” Or if you are willing to look a little bit beneath the surface, and you recognize there are some things that aren’t going the way that they, ideally, ought to be going. And so, that’s sort of how I would characterize [board members].

“If you’re trying to provide a measure of governance, you’ve got to point out when things aren’t going the way they should.”Martin Center: And in practice, the pontificators—the ones who are interested in access—are they voting with the reformers or with the cheerleaders?

Preyer: Almost always with the cheerleaders. And you know, it’s a shame because we all love the university. And I say that with great sincerity: We want to see it be better. And it’s a little bit like having children, where, if you don’t ever tell your children when they do something wrong, they get the misperception that when they do something wrong it has no consequence, or that it isn’t a mistake. And that’s not good for your children. If you’re parenting, or if you’re trying to provide a measure of governance in a large institution, like the University of North Carolina, you’ve got to point out when things aren’t going the way that they should. And that’s how I think those of us that have been entrepreneurs or business people [or] owner-operators—in my world, you know, I’m constantly trying to figure out how to solve multiple problems in every facet of what we do. And it becomes second nature because, ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s either gonna succeed or fail, because we’ve got to make these adjustments: adapt or be out of business. And that driver is not really there for a lot of folks in higher education. And I think that’s part of the disconnect that we wrestle with periodically.

Martin Center: So you just said, “We all love the university,” but some people have accused you of wanting to burn the university down. What is your response to those critics?

Preyer: I would say that that is completely ridiculous. I do not want a burned-out university, and as someone that has lived in Chapel Hill and has had relationships with faculty members and friends in the administration for 20-plus years, nothing could be further from the truth. That’s not to say, though, [that] there are [no] areas where there might be some dead wood that is accumulated, [nor] that that dead wood [doesn’t need] to be removed, lest it cause a fire. And I think that that, again, is a normal, healthy thing. And you’ve got people that are just so accustomed to a status quo that they don’t ever want to see something changed, because in some cases … people that are longtime supporters of the university … [don’t] want to lose access. And they’re willing to do anything so long as they can have access to the people that are in charge, at the expense, oftentimes, of doing what is in the best interest of the university.

Martin Center: As a board member and as budget chairman, you’ve been a staunch proponent of spending restraint. How do you think the university can best spend its money?

“One of the bright spots at UNC is the current financial management under the vice chancellor of finance and operations.”Preyer: I think it would be best [to] spend it like anyone who has to be held accountable for their own budget, their own spending. And if I could wave a magic wand and get one thing instilled in the administration at UNC, it would be to treat dollars—that are either appropriated from the General Assembly, or come in through gifts, or come in through research grants—as if it were money that you yourself had to go and borrow and sign a personal guarantee [for] with a bank—that you were going to do what you’re supposed to do with that money and you’re going to pay it back. And that sort of mentality is not really there … in certain places.

One of the bright spots at UNC is the current financial management under the vice chancellor of finance and operations and his team. They’re really, really good. [Before they came], there was a structural deficit of over $100 million that had been accruing over maybe eight years, prior to my time on the board. The previous chancellor had a deficit that was continuing to grow, and I was on a Zoom call during the search for what was then the vacant position of vice chancellor of finance and operations. And [Former UNC-System President] Erskine Bowles was on the call. And he had been brought in to help look at how this deficit had accumulated. And he said it was the worst example of financial mismanagement he had ever seen in his career, other than the possible exception of Elizabeth City State University. How does that happen?

One of the ways that happens is, when I first got on the board there was not a consolidated, unified budget for the university. There were 18 (plus or minus) different budgets, without one funnel [through] which they all flowed. And it was a recipe for spending excess and problems. [Fellow trustee] Dave Boliek and I were at an orientation meeting when we first got on the board. And we heard that there was not one single [unified] budget. And he looked at me and I looked at him as like, you’ve got to be kidding me! That’s insane. That is no way to manage a $5 billion enterprise. And we’ve got to change it. And with the help of the Board of Governors, we were able to change it. And I think that that sort of spending restraint is badly needed. And hopefully, we’re now on a much better track than we were when I first got on the board.

Martin Center: One thing that the Martin Center has advocated for is more transparency at universities. Specifically, we’d love to see universities stream and record their committee meetings, in addition to just the full board meetings. We both know that the real work happens in those committee meetings. Do you think there’s any chance of that happening at UNC?

Preyer: Yes, I think we need to do it. And I think that there’s no excuse for not doing it. Other than [the fact that] it’s a logistical headache for some of the staff people. But I’m a big proponent [of the idea] that transparency is a great disinfectant. And let the sun shine. So there’s no reason that committee day shouldn’t be both streamed and recorded. So we’ll hopefully have that done by the July 17-18th [meeting].

“The climate for the free exchange of ideas needs to be different than what it has been the past several years.”Martin Center: The N.C. House and now the Senate have both included money for the School of Civic Life and Leadership in their budgets. What’s your reaction to that development? What do you think the next steps should be?

Preyer: I think that’s a great thing. I’m delighted that the General Assembly is supporting it. And I think that the UNC administration needs to put together a timeline for the hiring of a dean for the School of Civic Life and Leadership and [for] letting the dean hire key staff. In order for it to really become a presence on campus, there needs to be someone who is in the head of it, in charge of it. I would love to see a dean named sometime this fall. And that dean [should be] given the latitude to do the hiring and the things that one would expect to launch and stand up a new school like that.

Martin Center: That would be very exciting. UNC has made some significant strides on free-speech [protections]. The faculty and the board have both adopted the Chicago Principles. The board has adopted a statement on institutional neutrality and a civility pledge. There have been two free-expression surveys. Is there still more to be done?

Preyer: Well, I think it’s something we have to continue to monitor. The climate for [the] free exchange of ideas needs to be different than what it has been the past several years. And I think that’s where we’re hopefully headed. I don’t know that we’re there right now. My sense is that we’re moving in the right direction, but we’re not there. And I think that a lot of the surveys have indicated that, oftentimes, the problem is coming not from faculty trying to dictate to students how they should think. It’s students effectively chastising their classmates or canceling their views and creating an atmosphere of intolerance of differing viewpoints. So really, I think that’s part of the reason that we want to see this School of Civic Life and Leadership stood up very quickly.

When I was a political science major, I had, by the time I graduated, [taken] 18 (plus or minus) classes in my major. And I had one class that stood out where it was a true free exchange of ideas. And it was a North Carolina politics class taught by Thad Beyle, who was a Democrat, very upfront about it, and a wonderful professor. And he co-taught the class with the then-mayor of Chapel Hill, Jonathan House, also a Democrat. And I never, ever thought that they were trying to dictate how people should view an issue as much as they wanted a free exchange of ideas and [for you to] defend your position in a way that everybody else can talk about. And it was one of the best classes I ever had. And you knew that no one in that class was ever going to be shouted down, or made to feel that their view was not worth being discussed, et cetera. And I think that’s what we’ve got to get back to.

Martin Center: Do you have anything else you want to add?

Preyer: No, just I would say thank you for your interest in trying to get greater transparency with our committee meetings and for taking the time to come and attend them in person. I know it’s a chore to pay attention to all of it. And not all the meetings have issues of real interest. But some of them do. And it’s a great thing that the Martin Center’s putting the time into this because it’s obviously something that a lot of people are working hard to try and advance: the cause for greater civility and the free exchange of ideas.

Jenna A. Robinson is the president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.