By Paul Fulton
Higher Ed Works
When we launched our “Making Governance Work” series more than six weeks ago, we said we didn’t intend to stipulate outcomes.
But a bipartisan consensus emerged that we need to pay attention – and possibly make changes – to the boards that govern our public universities. The essays from prominent North Carolinians and education leaders highlighted several themes:
- De-politicize appointment process
- Improve diversity
- No micromanagement
• Stability: After departures by multiple leaders across the UNC System, institutions need stable leadership to achieve ambitious goals.
“Most importantly, we need policies that encourage university board members to shift their focus from short-term wins toward long-term goals,” wrote former UNC System President Erskine Bowles and U.S. Senator Richard Burr.
“In just a few months, a new President will be at its helm, and governance – how this massive and complicated enterprise is led and managed – will be one of biggest issues he or she faces,” wrote former UNC System President Margaret Spellings.
• De-politicize appointment process: The 24-member UNC Board of Governors is chosen entirely by the N.C. General Assembly. Winston-Salem businessman Don Flow said politics need to be removed from choosing board members.
“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,” Flow wrote.
Gordon Gee, who has served as chief executive at five universities, said that will build public confidence.
“The general public is most apt to notice boards when prominent people become members. If they see people of real merit and heft in these roles, rather than just a political agenda, it gives an institution more credibility,” Gee wrote.
• Improve diversity: Former Board of Governors Chair Lou Bissette said the current Board doesn’t look like North Carolina.
“This is a diverse state, but we don’t have a diverse Board. Of the Board’s 24 voting members, only two live west of the Charlotte area, only three are persons of color, and only five are women,” Bissette wrote.
“… Today, the Board has no Democrats. That is simply not representative of our state and of the citizens we serve.”
Former Gov. Jim Martin said that just as we need diversity of thought among professors in the classroom, we also need diversity on governing boards.
“A conservative governance board doesn’t balance out a progressive faculty…,” Martin wrote. “We need diversity of thought at each level.”
In his history of UNC System governance, D.G. Martin noted that state law once reserved positions on the Board of Governors for women, minorities and the minority political party. But legislators did away with those requirements in 2001.
Former Gov. Martin proposed that we again adopt a law to require minority party representation on governing boards.
Bissette and others said authority for appointing board members should be distributed more broadly.
“In the past, the executive branch of our state government had a hand in appointing (campus) Board of Trustees members, and most folks agree it was a healthy way to be sure differing views were heard. No single entity should have total control over boards as important as these,” Bissette wrote.
Former Gov. Jim Hunt said the governor should have a voice in appointing the Board of Governors and campus boards of trustees.
“The Governor is elected statewide…. The Governor must take a broader view than legislators,” Hunt wrote.
• Independence: Bissette and Belle Wheelan, President and CEO of the agency that accredits all 16 UNC institutions, both pointed out that board members’ duty is to the institution.
“The University System’s Board of Governors owes its fiduciary duty to the System,” wrote Bissette. “Its duty of loyalty is to the institution it represents, not the institution that appoints its members, the General Assembly.”
Bissette and Flow pointed out that lobbyists depend for their livelihoods on the legislators who appoint them.
“Each member of the Board of Governors must be as independent as possible. They must be able to tell the General Assembly ‘no’ when the University’s interests don’t totally align with the Legislature’s,” wrote Bissette.
“That means Board Members’ careers and professional interests shouldn’t be financially reliant on the General Assembly. If you are a lobbyist, or your business relies on state contracts, you’re probably not the best person for the Board of Governors.”
• No micromanagement: Wheelan, Flow and former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl said board members are to shape broad policy, not manage day-to-day university operations.
“We ask you to make policy. Not to administer policy, but to make policy,” said Wheelan. “When boards start micromanaging, you’re stepping out of your lane and it gets my attention.”
Flow wrote that the Board governs – it does not manage the UNC System.
“When a Board intervenes in management, it drives away executive talent,” he said. “… Any board that engages in operational details will always undermine the President.”
OUR GOAL HERE was to elevate the discussion of governance of our public universities in North Carolina. The best outcome would be for a commission to study these proposals and others and make recommendations for changes to the Governor and the Legislature.
“It’s time for state leaders to step in and improve a governance situation that’s become unsustainable,” wrote Hugh McColl. “We need state leaders to refocus our universities and get them once again making the decisive, visionary actions we need.”
Paul Fulton is Co-Chair of Higher Ed Works.