By D.G. MARTIN
Former UNC System President Margaret Spellings spoke for many North Carolinians concerned about the state’s public multi-campus university when she questioned, “You know, are we organized for success?
“So we’ve got a Board of Trustees and a chancellor (on each campus), and a President and a Board of Governors (for the System), and a historical commission and a legislature – so there’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen.”
So, how did we get from a simple one-campus institution with one governing board to the more complicated situation that worried President Spellings?
Until 1931, the single campus of the University of North Carolina located at Chapel Hill was governed by a 100-person Board of Trustees elected by the General Assembly and chaired by the governor.
The state’s other public four-year institutions, including North Carolina State, Women’s College (now UNC Greensboro), colleges for teacher training, and minority institutions, were independent and governed by separate boards.
During the Depression, Governor O. Max Gardner recommended that the University of North Carolina (at Chapel Hill), the North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering, and the North Carolina College for Women be consolidated into one entity to be governed by the University of North Carolina’s Board of Trustees and administered by one president who, at the time, was Frank Porter Graham.
That recommendation was adopted by the legislature in 1931 and these three campuses became part of the “Consolidated” University of North Carolina.
In 1965, Charlotte College became a part of the consolidated entity as the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In 1969, Asheville-Biltmore College and Wilmington College became a part of the Consolidated University as the University of North Carolina at Asheville and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
Meanwhile, the state’s other higher education institutions were growing in student populations and in ambitions to expand their missions. In 1955, the General Assembly created the Board of Higher Education “to promote the development and operation of a sound, vigorous, progressive and consolidated system of higher education in the state of North Carolina.”
The Board of Higher Education’s oversight and coordinating responsibility threatened the authority of the UNC Board of Trustees to have primary programmatic responsibility for its campuses.
By 1970, according to Rob Christensen in his recent book, The Rise and Fall of the Branchhead Boys, “This led to a legislative free-for-all. Individual campuses became increasingly aggressive in lobbying the legislature, seeking new degree-granting programs and new programs and new buildings. Lawmakers often measured their own effectiveness by their ability to deliver for their regional campus.”
Gov. Robert Scott, at the end of his term of office in 1971, Christensen writes, “decided to undertake the reorganization of higher education as his political swan song. In doing so, Scott started what he later describes somewhat melodramatically as ‘a civil war in higher education.’”
After a bitter battle between Scott’s allies and supporters of the six-campus UNC, the legislature passed The Higher Education Reorganization Act. Ten campuses were added to the University of North Carolina. Their Boards of Trustees were retained and the UNC campuses got their own trustee boards. More importantly, a powerful 32-member UNC Board of Governors was created to govern the university, which now included 16 campuses.
The members of the board were initially selected from institutional boards for a transition period. Thereafter, the General Assembly would elect eight members for terms of eight years every two years. Originally, of the eight selected at least one had to be from a minority race, one from the minority political party, and one woman. No member of the General Assembly could serve.
Eight of the members of campus boards of trustees were selected by the Board of Governors and four were to be appointed by the Governor.
Over time, several important changes were made:
- In 1987, the terms of Board of Governors members were reduced from eight years to four years, with a maximum of three consecutive terms;
- In 1991, a student member was added;
- In 2001, at a time when “quotas” were considered controversial, the designated slots for minorities, the minority party and women were eliminated;
- In 2007, the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics in Durham became UNC’s 17th constituent institution;
- In 2016, responsibility for appointing four members of the Board of Trustees at each campus was transferred from the governor to the legislature; and
- In 2017, the size of the Board was reduced from 32 to 24 members.
In addition to President Spellings’ important points about the complexity of UNC’s governance structure, others argue that the legislature’s meddling in university affairs has a detrimental impact. They point out that few other states have their university governing boards selected solely by their legislatures.1
The University of North Carolina’s governing boards have been selected by the legislature from the beginning. There have always been tensions and downsides. But even critics of the governing structure acknowledge that a much-admired higher education system has been the result.
D.G. Martin served the UNC System from 1987 until 1997 as Secretary of the University and as Vice President for Public Affairs.
Howard Covington, Fire and Stone: The Making of the University of North Carolina under Presidents Edward Kidder Graham and Harry Woodburn Chase.
Rob Christensen, The Rise and Fall of the Branchhead Boys: North Carolina’s Scott Family and the Era of Progressive Politics.
William A. Link, William Friday: Power, Purpose, and American Higher Education, Second Edition.
Arnold K King, The Multicampus University of North Carolina Comes of Age, 1956-1986.North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, “The Statewide UNC Board Of Governors: Its Selection, Powers, and Relationship to the 16 Local Campus Boards Of Trustees.” https://nccppr.org/wp-content/uploads/research_reports/THE_STATE_WIDE_UNC_BOARD_OF_GOVERNORS.pdf.