Chapel Hill Should Make a Political Hire

Contra Kevin Guskiewicz and Chapel Hill “insiders,” elections have consequences for higher ed.

What strange things people say. Shortly before accepting the presidency of Michigan State University earlier this month, UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz made clear that he would not tolerate “undue interference” from the institution’s Board of Trustees. Chapel Hill insiders, meanwhile, have expressed concern that Guskiewicz’s replacement “will be a political pick.”

As all involved ought to know (and surely, in their hearts, do), both sentiments are out of step not only with reality but with the “democratic norms” so beloved by our progressive elite. The governance of public universities belongs to the public and is lent only temporarily to the men and women who occupy administrative suites. To frame board oversight as “interference,” or to complain that a designedly political process may produce a political result, is to willfully misunderstand the mechanisms by which “We the People” keep our colleges and universities in line.

The governance of public universities belongs to the public.To begin with, we vote for trustee candidates or select the public officials who will appoint them. At Michigan State, board members are chosen via direct election and so represent the clear and present will of the people. A trustee can be removed by the governor under certain circumstances, but this is merely one form of democratic expression balancing another.

Concerning the board’s power, the Michigan constitution states plainly that trustees shall “have general supervision of [the] institution and the control and direction of all expenditures from the institution’s funds.” Moreover, the board shall, “as often as necessary, elect a president of the institution under its supervision” (emphasis added).

Chancellor Guskiewicz obviously knows all of this. Would you take a job without a clear understanding of the organization’s accountability structure? The problem is that, like many on the academic left, Guskiewicz has seemed at times to view cooperation with the public’s representatives as a distraction from the more pressing business of appeasing activists. Healthy distinctions can be made between “undue interference” and reasoned, appropriate governance. One wonders, though, if a board that asked for more spending, more DEI, more affirmative action, and more stunt hires would ever be accused of the former.

Should Guskiewicz’s comments worry the people of Michigan? That is for them to decide, acting through their duly elected trustees. But let no one say that warning signs failed to materialize during the hiring process. A candidate who moves to insulate himself from public accountability must surely have in mind a contentious term. That isn’t to say that unpopular decisions are never correct. But they are just as often foolhardy, craven, biased, or unjust. Ask Liz Magill.

As for the departing chancellor’s replacement at Chapel Hill, it is tempting to re-run the Martin Center’s previous commentary in Mad Lib form: [Name of Governing Entity] will always be political, as [it/he/they] are selected via [Type of Democratic Process]. To be sure, not every university appointment is partisan. Republican-vs.-Democrat squabbling doesn’t map perfectly onto higher ed. At their root, however, the most important campus-personnel choices proceed necessarily and intentionally from the people, a state of affairs one begins to suspect is the critics’ real concern. “Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” Alcuin’s motto ran—unless the populi want to comply with a Supreme Court decision or support academic programs disliked by some faculty.

It is worth reviewing how UNC chancellors are chosen in the first place. After filling the position on an interim basis, UNC-System president Peter Hans convenes a search committee in consultation with the Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. Once the trustees review the committee’s notes, they send three unranked finalists to Hans, who selects a winner from among them. Hans’s choice is then ratified by the UNC System’s Board of Governors.

To make choices about a public university is fundamentally to enter the grubby world of politics.Crucially, the offices just mentioned are themselves filled via the democratic process, albeit in a roundabout way. Members of Chapel Hill’s board are chosen by the N.C. General Assembly (six selections) and the UNC-System Board of Governors (eight). The Board of Governors is itself appointed by the legislature and is responsible for the hiring of the UNC-System president.

One can call these mechanisms messy, insidery, inscrutable, or even corrupt. What one cannot say is that they do, or ever could, exist outside of the realm of politics.

Yet even if an apolitical chancellor search could somehow be effected, we would still be left with the unavoidable fact that the business of higher-ed administration is itself inherently political. As a right-of-center education reformer, I want a UNC chancellor who will embrace institutional neutrality, tear up racist admissions policies like weeds, prevent discrimination against conservative students and faculty, and foster a culture of robust free speech. I will be the first to concede that these preferences have their root in ideology. Will my opponent grant the same about his own?

After all, what critics on the left want is hardly impartial. For them, the ideal chancellor will act as a shield between the university and the men and women charged with its oversight. He will say nothing about academic or campus life, except to the extent that defending progressive overreach becomes necessary. He will shower money on diversity initiatives and tacitly bless campus efforts to sidestep Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. Most importantly, he will be an ally, in every progressive sense of that woefully misused word.

Have I described a legitimate holder of the office? Of course. That many readers will recoil from such a depiction merely proves my point. To make choices about a public university is fundamentally to enter the grubby world of politics. I may not like your candidate; you may not like mine. That is why we settle these matters, however indirectly, with elections.

The title of this article states that Chapel Hill should make a political hire. Perhaps I ought to have said that the institution will make one. If we’re lucky, UNC’s next chancellor will build consensus, lead respectfully, and push the university in a healthy direction. But make no mistake: Even a perfect hire would come drenched in politics, soaked to his very skin. That’s not a bug of the system. It’s a feature.

Graham Hillard is editor at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.