By Richard Burr and Erskine Bowles
The University of North Carolina (UNC) System’s 17 institutions have given generations of students a top-tier education. Our universities have achieved a standard of excellence at a fraction of the cost of public institutions in other states.
And they have built a bright, talented workforce, as the majority of graduates decide to start their careers or families here in the Tar Heel State. Each year, nearly 80 percent of the 56,000 students who receive an undergraduate or graduate degree from a UNC System school remain in-state after graduation.
The UNC System as we know it today is the result of decades of work by visionary lawmakers and university leaders, like Bill Friday and C.D. Spangler Jr., who understood the importance of providing students with a great education at a low cost. This generation of leaders shares that passion, but faces an even more difficult task: growing the UNC legacy in an increasingly complex and politically charged world.
As two people who have faced off on opposite sides of the aisle – and occasionally opposite sides of the ballot – we’re no strangers to the push and pull of politics. Indeed, we believe that elected officials have an important role in shaping our university system. Elections reflect changing trends and attitudes. They provide universities with guidance on strategic planning, insight into the needs of the state, and instructions that carry the voice of the people.
At the same time, while it is true that “elections have consequences,” when it comes to education those results should be positive, not punitive. The UNC System has a long history of sound governance regardless of which party occupies the Governor’s mansion or the General Assembly. That’s because we recognize that we all share a common goal and that our job as elected officials is to act as good stewards for the next generation.
Universities exist to teach students the lessons that have stood the test of time; as institutions, they should be designed to stand the test of time, as well.
So how can we ensure the UNC System remains as strong as ever for future generations? That is a question we believe should be answered through genuine civil and public debate, one that we expect will focus in part on governance.
First, we should debate how to improve the makeup of the board overseeing UNC schools. Ensuring bipartisan representation would be a good first step toward fostering stability. Additionally, strengthening conflict-of-interest regulations would reinforce the integrity of the board’s decision-making process.
Second, we should consider ways to improve clarity around board activity. The decisions made by a $10 billion public institution are significant and far-reaching. We should look for ways to give the public greater insight into the questions before the board and the opportunity to provide input.
Lastly, and most importantly, we need policies that encourage university board members to shift their focus from short-term wins toward long-term goals. We should remember that the effort we put in today will pay dividends down the line, and that our responsibility lies not only with today’s students but also with their children and grandchildren.
This is a time of transition for the UNC System. From the appointment of a new Board Chair, to the hiring of several new chancellors and a System president over the coming year, we believe this transition is an opportunity to revisit how our university leaders are supported and guided by our governance structure. Together, this state can hold a debate and make changes that ensure our public university system continues to stand as one of North Carolina’s proudest traditions.
Richard Burr is the senior U.S. Senator from North Carolina. Erskine Bowles served as President of the UNC System and the White House Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton. The two faced each other in North Carolina’s 2004 race for the U.S. Senate.