By Margaret Spellings
North Carolina’s competitiveness is rooted in its education ecosystem. The UNC System is the state’s most important asset. 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.
I had the privilege of leading the UNC System for three years. Today, I lead Texas 2036, a bipartisan initiative to advance long-term, data-driven strategies on issues like health care, education and infrastructure to ensure Texas’ continued growth.
Then and now I think a lot about governance and whether, as I like to say, “we’re organized for success.” Who is in charge and how they’re held accountable matters greatly.
Leaders across the Old North State are thinking a lot about governance too. I make it back to North Carolina often and consider myself a dual citizen. Just last month I returned at the request of a group of prominent business leaders interested in the Texas 2036 model, and what it might offer North Carolina.
I don’t have all the answers, but as those leaders and future university leaders move forward, here are four principles for them to consider:
Build Data-Driven Accountability
Accountability matters. If you don’t have a strong accountability system that’s grounded in good data, then you’re destined to lead through micromanagement.
Leaders must collect data that’s actionable, comprehensive, and timely. What gets measured gets done and what’s not measured gets forgotten. For example, you can’t ensure graduates are getting jobs that pay the bills if you don’t track income after graduation.
The gap between the goals that leaders claim and the data they collect can be startling. Good governance means matching goals to data.
Localize Strategic Planning
Too often strategic plans have a habit of collecting dust on shelves. We avoided that fate at the UNC System by creating a core strategy and then empowering each of our 17 institutions to localize that planning based on their own needs and opportunities.
We involved our chancellors at every step, created a system-wide goal that linked progress to institution-specific goals, and pushed campus leaders to be aggressive while trusting their on-the-ground knowledge. All of it was made easily accessible through public dashboards that tracked progress.
Our campuses are led by strong leaders and supported by local boards of trustees. When they’re empowered around a unified strategy, great things can and do happen.
Today, thanks to continued leadership from Interim President Bill Roper and his team, the UNC System’s graduation rate is eight percentage points above the national average, and the system is outperforming its strategic plan goals on nearly every metric.
Sell Your Vision
Leaders say a lot of words and it can be easy to get cynical about their impact. But I’ve found when leaders consistently and publicly make the case for a compelling shared vision, it raises expectations and keeps organizations focused.
Good governance also means building a coalition of support. The most powerful education coalition is between business and civil rights leaders. In North Carolina, myFutureNC is that coalition. Leaders invested in outreach, and it has produced significant momentum around a bipartisan statewide attainment goal to have 2 million North Carolinians educated with a postsecondary degree or credential by 2030.
Leaders must be public, realistic, and honest. They must make themselves available, inviting public comment and discussion. That’s where trust is built and how supportive, lasting coalitions are created.
Organize For Success
Good governance and oversight demand three big things: independent leaders; long-term strategic planning; and a focus on core institutional priorities. We must build our governance structures accordingly.
Comparing Texas and North Carolina shows that there’s no shortage of different models to consider.
North Carolina has a unified four-year public university system while Texas has six separate systems and a coordinating board overseeing all of higher education, including its community colleges.
In Texas, a nine-member board appointed by the governor oversees its university systems. Members serve for six-year terms, which means the governor doesn’t have a “working majority” until into the second term. In North Carolina, the 24-member university system board is appointed for four-year terms by the Legislature. Within just three years, the Board could completely change membership.
There’s no one right answer, but structures lead to outcomes. If university systems are divided, it makes statewide strategies harder to execute. If a board has high turnover, there’s greater need for member orienting and onboarding – something the Board of Governors discussed at a recent meeting.
We’re all trying to get this right. How we govern our states’ most important institutions will determine whether we meet the public’s needs. In North Carolina, a strong UNC System is central to that, and I’m excited to see what’s next.
With data-driven accountability, long-term strategic planning, vocal leadership, and a governance structure that’s aligned with what it must do, we can ensure the system’s next President is supported as he or she shapes that next chapter for UNC and for all North Carolinians.
Margaret Spellings, the U.S. Secretary of Education from 2005-09, served as President of the University of North Carolina System from 2016-19. She is now President and CEO of Texas 2036.