Do they really care what we think?

| May 31, 2015

UNC System logoEditorial by Greensboro News-Record, May 31, 2015.

Even as they are shoving their current, well-qualified president out of the door, for reasons never spoken, the UNC Board of Governors is seeking public input on whom should replace Greensboro native Tom Ross as head of the state’s world-class public university system.

Do they really care what we think?

Or will this be another ritual exercise in partisan politics, as Ross’ premature departure, against his will, seems to suggest?

At any rate, Ross’ forced retirement has been a messy tangle of tied tongues and mixed signals. UNC Board of Governors Chairman John Fennebresque, a Charlotte Republican who first broached the idea of Ross leaving in a one-on-conversation with the UNC president, called the episode a “fiasco.”

That’s a good way to put it. Fennebresque praised Ross for doing a fine job. Then he kicked him to the curb.

Some say Ross was pushed out to make way for former state budget director Art Pope, a wealthy patron of conservative causes and a constant UNC critic. But Fennebresque assured The Charlotte Observer that Pope wouldn’t be taking the job.

For whatever reasons, Ross’ ouster is a done deal. He has agreed by contract to step down by January 2016.

Now the focus should shift to the search for his successor, who will have hard acts to follow not only in Ross, but in other highly regarded past UNC leaders such as Erskine Bowles, C.D. Spangler Jr. and the inestimable William Friday, who served at the post for 30 years.

Foremost, the new president will need to manage change and be open to new approaches to higher education.

The spiraling expenses of a college education, even in a relatively affordable state such as North Carolina, suggests a need to rethink how the model is designed and explore ways to keep tuition affordable.

He or she needs to be a strong judge of talent and leadership among the chancellors hired to run UNC’s 17 campuses (kudos to Ross and all involved in the hiring of Franklin Gilliam, a former dean of the School of Public Affairs at UCLA, as UNC-Greensboro’s new chancellor). Each is tantamount to a corporate CEO who must run a complex and challenging organization in a still-treacherous economy.

The next president will need to appreciate the delicate balance between education and professional training. Ideally, our universities shouldn’t only prepare students for productive careers, but teach them to think and to reason and to relate to diverse cultures.

The new president will need to build relationships with businesses and industry. As the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology in Greensboro attests, academic research can and should drive innovations that can create products, profits and jobs in the private marketplace. But not at the expense of academic integrity.

Ross’ successor will need to manage relationships with the Board of Governors as well as an often willful and ideological legislature. And he or she must be willing to make the case for adequate funding. (Fennebresque concedes, “If the University of North Carolina is allowed to deteriorate, it will hurt the prosperity of this state for a long, long time.”)

What should matter least is the next UNC president’s party affiliation.

Yes, Ross is a Democrat, as was Bowles before him. But Bowles’ appointment initially was pushed by Republicans who liked his toughness, his impressive business experience and his ability to work across the aisle as chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. His party affiliation was almost an afterthought, as it should have been.

What we need most for our universities is an effective leader. We’ve got enough politicians as it is.

Category: NC SPIN Perspectives - Opinions from NC Leaders & Organizations

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