By Jim Martin
Even at its most refined, governance is messy. There’s no perfect process that can guarantee the right decision. The closest we can come is to make sure every voice is in the room arguing about what’s right.
Diversity of thought is a bedrock principle of this country. Nothing drives discontent more than feeling your voice is excluded from a conversation. When I came of age in a Democratic-controlled, one-party North Carolina, it’s what motivated me to enter politics. And as we successfully changed North Carolina into a vibrant two-party state, I learned the reverse; seeing your voice represented in that battle of ideas – in politics – is what gives you faith and trust in a system and an institution.
That’s why I’m concerned about one of our state’s crucial institutions: our public universities. Our universities are political battlefields. We can’t change that and we shouldn’t try. Trying to take the politics out of politics is always a bad idea. These are massive public institutions and they need political influence to channel the will of the people into their strategy and administration. No multi-billion-dollar public institution should be run solely by those who get paid by that institution.
But we’ve reached a point where the politics surrounding our universities have managed to make North Carolinians across the political spectrum believe they are excluded and ignored.
Conservatives have long believed, backed up by data, that they’re underrepresented in faculty leadership and to a lesser degree in university administration. You can argue whether universities are “hostile” towards conservatives, but it’s undeniable that university faculty – and faculty leadership – lean left. Conservatives have long understood higher education’s power in shaping societies so it’s no surprise they’re concerned these cultural and intellectual engines skew left.
But today, North Carolina progressives also look at our universities and their politically-appointed governance boards and believe – backed up by data — that these boards exclude their voices. Currently, no registered Democrat sits on the UNC System Board of Governors. That’s different than the past. Even when Democratic control of this state was absolute, registered Republicans were still appointed to university boards.
Both of these imbalances – political monopolies within Board leadership and faculty leadership – are urgent problems.
While Republicans control the state legislature, it’s proper for university boards to have a conservative majority. And with market and societal forces pushing conservative talent towards professions outside of academics, it appears inevitable that faculty leadership will skew progressive. Majority control, however, is different than majority hegemony. We must ensure there is an eloquent, empowered minority at both leadership levels.
Our universities deserve praise for how they’ve structured governance over the years, ensuring that chancellors, political board appointees, and faculty leadership all have important roles in leading the university. This diversity of professional perspectives improves decision making.
But a conservative governance board doesn’t balance out a progressive faculty. Such a set-up breeds conflict, not balance. We need diversity of thought at each level, not ideologically opposed governing bodies. The quickest correction can happen at the Board level. The majority party in Raleigh must appoint minority party members to our university boards. In fact, we should pass a new law requiring it. An ideal solution would include minority party appointments and at least some consensus appointments made jointly by the minority and majority parties.
Conservatives may argue that there’s no easy remedy for progressive domination of faculty leadership which means conservatives must fully control governance boards as a counter weight. I reject that. Conservatives cannot give up the academy! We can and must build better pipelines for young conservative talent into academia and empower conservative faculty to lead from within. Encouraging chancellors to elevate outstanding conservative faculty into leadership roles is a good place to start.
Both sides have carved out their own power base. Both believe at least part of the university excludes them, and so they cling to that power and exclude diverse thinking. Neither side should give up power. But both sides must allow for an eloquent minority that will challenge them on first principles, question the status quo, and ultimately lead to stronger decisions.
Empowering or building eloquent minorities within faculty and board leadership won’t overturn many decisions. The majority still rules in these bodies. But inclusive decision making improves public trust. A minority voice gives every North Carolinian faith that their views are being heard.
This is the people’s university and both progressives and conservatives should start acting like it.
James G. Martin served as Governor of North Carolina from 1985-93, following six terms in Congress. Martin began his career as an educator, earning a Ph.D. in chemistry from Princeton University and later teaching chemistry at his alma mater, Davidson College.