The dangerous politicizing of our universities

Published March 28, 2019

By Tom Campbell

by Tom Campbell, Producer and Moderator of NC SPIN, March 27, 2019.

Sometimes it is hard finding truth. That’s where I am regarding the UNC Board of Governors.

Three top officials within the University of North Carolina System have resigned or been fired this year. The UNC Board of Governors (BOG) either instigated these departures or has shown little remorse for them. The chairman of the BOG has had a running feud with the chancellor at East Carolina University and appears heavily involved with the firing of Chancellor Cecil Staton, even though Harry Smith first asserted he wouldn’t involve himself with ECU at all, then denied Staton was fired, and finally denied he had any involvement. One BOG member refuted these assertions and publicly called the chairman to task, but aside from this one member we’ve heard crickets from anyone else on the board. Further, that member was forced to make a public apology under threat of being censured without the apology.

I told one BOG member it appeared the board is out of control. Not so, was the response, followed by defenses for all three departures. Former President Margaret Spellings had done a terrible job of managing the system and was undermining the board behind the scenes. Not only had UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt been ineffective in managing the academic scandal she inherited, she had made it worse. Besides, her handing of the Silent Sam controversy was a disaster. ECU’s Staton was the worst, I was told. Enrollments are down, the university is in financial trouble, a 60-million-dollar expansion of the football stadium was plagued with problems and that doesn’t even speak to the poor performance of the Athletic Director and head football coach.

Implied is that just about everything that happened prior to this board’s arrival was wrongheaded, incompetently managed or antithetical to the university’s mission. Previous Boards of Governors failed miserably in performing oversight duties. Additionally, university administrations and faculties have become so left-wing liberal as to poison educational integrity. And the BOG chair is providing sound and proper leadership and supported by the board. Sometimes you have to break something to fix it. Opponents don’t know the facts and are mostly liberals. Thank heavens this current board had arrived to rescue our faltering system. It has done some really positive things, like NC Promise and halting big tuition increases.

Legislative leaders obviously agree. Both houses just named their new BOG members and, in a “vote of confidence,” ten of the twelve elected are holdovers. Of the 24 BOG members only six are women, only four are minorities; there might be one or two Democrats and an unaffiliated voter or two among them. Mostly it’s older Republican White men.

There is a completely opposite narrative coming from a growing group of business leaders, former BOG members, education leaders and concerned citizens. These bipartisan citizens say this current board is all about politics and intent on kicking trash cans and turning over just about everything, whether working or not, in their desire to create dissension, dysfunction and the dismantlement of our “crown jewel.” They say board members are spreading repeated lies in to support their agenda and they are pushing for the ouster of the chairman, a reformed selection process and a return to civility and cooperation in working for the betterment of our 16 campuses.

Which of these two is right? Call me a doubting Thomas, but I started being concerned when President Tom Ross was summarily fired for no other apparent reason than he was a Democrat. I can accept that fresh eyes can see things that can be improved, but a lot of what is happening seems to be change for the sake of change. I believe the truth is in here somewhere, but the situation has become so heated and politicized as to be hard to see the truth. I admit to leaning more in favor of the group critical of our current board.

The one clear truth is that it is dangerous for us to politicize our universities.



March 29, 2019 at 6:53 am
William Mobley says:

Right on, Tom. It's not hard to see the negative influence the legislature has had on the NC university system with their efforts to drive various reactionary agendas down the throats of the Board of Governors. Having grown up in Georgia, but a NC resident now, the NC system was always the flagship of public universities in the southeast. Now they are the joke.

March 30, 2019 at 11:13 am
Jim Moye says:

Your column this week was needed. It is beyond frightening to think that our once respected university system is controlled by people like Board of Governors Chairman Harry Lee Smith. I had the displeasure of working with him 20 years ago and was privy to many of his behavioral traits that I found objectionable.