By Don Flow
The UNC System is the most important institution in North Carolina.
It is the distinctive difference between our state and every other southern state. It sets us apart. It is at the heart of what has enabled us to flourish relative to our neighbors.
But it hasn’t achieved its excellence by accident. Our universities have become our competitive advantage because of world-class leadership.
For decades, the UNC System has achieved excellence because of great leaders. The UNC President is often among the state’s most prominent and important voices. But good leaders need an environment and a structure that supports them. They need a governance structure that enables visionary planning for the future and bold action in the present.
Corporate boards understand that. Successful company boards empower their CEO, hold him or her accountable, and then focus on their fiduciary duty. That’s the same approach we need at our higher education institutions.
To their credit, our state’s leaders have pushed and supported our university in transformative ways and our Legislature has led the way. NC Promise is a bold experiment in $500 a semester tuition that’s becoming a national model.
The Legislature’s similarly bold fixed tuition policy is a big change from business as usual for universities and is giving students and families unprecedented predictability from normally volatile tuition and fees.
All of this builds on years of legislative support that has built our university system into what it is today while keeping tuition in the bottom quartile of their peers. Graduation rates are now eight points higher than the national average and enrollment is at record highs.
But in spite of the good news, we’re seeing troubling distractions and high turnover among top leadership that is unacceptable. It risks undermining the good work happening across the System.
That’s why it’s time for the Legislature to build on these investments and accomplishments and seek to learn from how the corporate sector has improved its governance model in the last decade.
The first and most important lesson is about focus. A Board must be focused on its fiduciary duty, enabling the institution to achieve its mission. Individual members of a Board must prioritize the mission of the institution over any personal agendas. Every action must be weighed in light of this mandate.
To ensure that every Board member embraces his or her responsibility with this level of fidelity to the mission, we must look at the selection process. If it is not de-politicized, I believe the UNC system will be significantly and permanently diminished. A politicized process creates dual loyalties that result in a lack of institutional alignment.
There are realistic ways to do that. Nominating committees should evaluate candidates with publicly known merit-based criteria. Candidate names should be shared publicly for vetting well before voting. And we should explore banning lobbyists on governing boards and consider other restrictions on how financially intertwined board members can be with legislators and state funding.
These are not radical changes. But they would preserve and even enhance public control of the university while depoliticizing its board.
De-politicization of the selection process must be paired with better governance practices on the board itself. The Board governs, it does not manage the UNC system. When a Board intervenes in management, it drives away executive talent because it diminishes the voice of leadership at each institution.
Any board that engages in operational details will always undermine the President, no matter how good the intentions may be. A President runs the operation, and the Board holds the President accountable. Any other set up is unsustainable and detrimental.
This spring, the UNC System has an opportunity to reset, and make that reset clear. The legislature must clearly signal it is intent on de-politicizing the selection process and the Board of Governors must clearly signal its mission is accountability, not activism.
Talented leaders have options. As a state, we are going to have to work hard to convince premier candidates that our university system is a place where they can thrive and where their leadership can make a distinctive difference.
For the sake of our state, our people, and our economy’s competitive edge, it’s essential that we do just that.
Don Flow is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Flow Automotive Companies in Winston-Salem. He is a former Chair of the Board of Trustees at Wake Forest University and currently serves as Vice Chairman of the Board of Wake Forest Baptist Health.