The Board of Governors refuses to say why they are forcing out Tom Ross as UNC system president. The Board clearly has the right and prerogative to ask Ross to step down. No one is questioning this. However, we should all be questioning the Board’s judgment. Board of Governors Chair John Fennebresque refused to state the need for change. He said the board simply felt there should be a transition to a new president. Unfortunately, President Ross’ transition isn’t the only one occurring here. The most obvious interpretation of removing Ross is that the move signals a newfound sense of activism on the part of the UNC Board of Governors.
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With Republican majorities taking over in the state capital, nearly the entire membership of the Board of Governors has turned over in recent years.
At the same time, board activism in higher education has increased across the country with grave long-term consequences.
Healthy boards are responsible for the financial strength of the university, hire the president, and serve as a resource. Activist boards micromanage universities and undermine institutional leaders.
Yet, the conservative-leaning American Council of Trustees and Alumni has called on university board members to speak up as institutional watchdogs. The group wants boards to carefully track expenses and boldly confront campus leaders on academic policy.
What’s wrong with board members ensuring the wise spending of state funds or reforming academic policies?
There are many examples from other states where activist boards have harmed their universities.
The reality is that activist boards follow a narrow ideology. This leads to excessive and unproductive conflicts with university leaders.
Activist boards often believe colleges and universities are like businesses and can be reengineered, downsized, bought, sold, and consolidated. They show little patience in waiting for administrators to institute reforms. They fail to consider the perspective of faculty.
The irony, of course, is that corporate boards wouldn’t act this way. These boards give CEOs wide latitude to focus on the core business, mission, and strategy execution.
Instead, activist boards follow partisan politics and encourage excessive budget cuts. They exhibit an open hostility to shared governance between trustees, administrators, faculty, and students.
If the Board of Governors continues along this path, they will intensify conflict between themselves and university leaders. Moreover, an activist strategy will further inject partisanship and politics into the university. No one wins with an increasingly politicized environment for higher education.
Today, the UNC system faces enormous challenges. Tuition has increased and state support has fallen. Students and families are struggling with how to pay for college. Demographic changes will confront university leaders for the next generation.
By 2018, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that 59% of North Carolina jobs will require some form of higher education. The UNC system has a critical role to play in preparing the state for this economy.
These are big issues that demand a sustained commitment from state leaders, board members, administrators, and faculty.
An activist and micromanaging Board of Governors makes solving these challenges harder.
Simply put, North Carolina can’t afford an activist Board of Governors.
The long term prosperity of North Carolina’s people and economy depend too much on a healthy, vibrant, and innovative system of higher education.