Politics Creeps In

As disputes at North Carolina and Michigan State take partisan overtones, can boards, leaders, faculty members and lawmakers back away from polarization to lead public universities effectively?

January 18, 2019
 
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Michigan State University and the University of North Carolina became uncanny reflections of each other this week as the new culture wars claimed two casualties on campus in the form of ousted executives.

On Monday, UNC Chapel Hill chancellor Carol Folt handed in her resignation at the same time as she decided to remove the remnants of the toppled Silent Sam Confederate monument. Two days later, Michigan State interim president John Engler tendered his resignation rather than be fired in the wake of another in a long series of missteps seen as hostile toward victims of sexual assault.

Clearly, the details and dynamics of each situation are different. In North Carolina, Folt was a leader who had faced criticism for not acting as she unsuccessfully supported a middle-of-the-road solution between progressive activists who wanted the statue off campus and a conservative system board that did not. When she did act, citing safety concerns, she suddenly found her tattered image at Chapel Hill being rehabilitated.

Engler, on the other hand, was embattled after he made comments and took actions that set victims of sexual assault and the Me Too movement against him. But he had enjoyed the backing of a Board of Trustees until new members took seats -- and until he said last week that sexual assault victims in the spotlight were enjoying the moment. Few on campus seemed to be backing him in the wake of his ouster.

Nonetheless, both leaders found themselves dismissed earlier than they’d hoped. Folt planned to step down after graduation, but the UNC System Board of Governors accepted her resignation as of the end of the month. Engler, who until this week planned to stay on until a new president would be in place sometime this summer, intended to stay on until Jan. 23, only to have his board vote Thursday to oust him immediately.

Underneath all those details, the two cases fit into a larger trend of cultural change causing governance challenges on campus. Anyone who remembers the 1960s will tell you that’s nothing new. It is still notable today for playing out in the form of politically charged clashes between presidents and boards at public institutions. In North Carolina, Folt found her actions on the Confederate statue angering board members appointed by Republicans with little sympathy for those who study and teach at Chapel Hill and felt the monument glorified racism and white supremacy. Engler's background as a powerful and connected Republican politician could have been seen as a strength at a time when the university in crisis would likely need backing from lawmakers, but he also brought a fair share of baggage.

It’s a particularly concerning development for higher education supporters because boards have traditionally been seen as protecting universities and their potentially controversial scholarship from political whims. Having elected or appointed boards who in turn are responsible for hiring and firing presidents and chancellors strikes a balance by providing much-needed political insulation but still keeping institutions accountable to the taxpayers who fund them and the politicians in charge of the states.

If clashes continue to take on tones of the political polarization that has poisoned so much public discourse, it will harm governance and universities themselves, the fear goes.

“Governance cannot break the university system quickly, but it can break it steadily over the long term,” said Ellis Hankins, a former executive director of the North Carolina League of Municipalities who ran for state senate in 2016 and who has taught at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and Duke University. “If we don’t have enlightened, effective university system governance, we’re no longer going to have a world-class university system. You start having more trouble attracting and retaining faculty members. It can become a downward spiral, which I’m very concerned about.”

Engler’s resignation letter provides a striking example of a cultural change bringing about a burst of partisan accusations. The resigning interim president, who spent three terms as a Republican governor of Michigan, opened his letter by discussing trustees’ political affiliations.

“You have advised me that five Democratic members of the MSU Board, including yourself, have requested my resignation as MSU President,” he wrote to the board’s chair, Dianne Byrum. “The election of two new Democratic members and the appointment of a Democrat to replace Trustee George Perles has created a new majority on the board.”

An Engler supporter also turned to politics, telling the Lansing State Journal that trustees and Engler’s critics should have examined the reforms that were put in place under Engler’s watch.

“It’s more about partisanship than it is about scholarship,” Dan Pero, who managed two Engler campaigns for governor and spent a term as his chief of staff, told the newspaper.

During Thursday’s meeting to accept Engler’s resignation, trustees maintained that they were acting in the university’s best interest, not in a political fashion.

“It’s not a partisan decision,” said Dan Kelly, the board’s vice chair. “I don’t think it’s a Democrat or Republican position to condemn comments that are not consistent with the values or what we hope to be the values of the university."

Indeed, many Republicans were horrified by Engler's comments about abuse survivors. And former lieutenant governor Brian Calley, a Republican, was credited with recruiting Nancy Schlichting, one of the new trustees who voted to accept Engler's resignation Thursday, to the board.

Engler’s case may be an aberration, of course. He is a former politician, and his relationship with some trustees was already remarkably poor -- one trustee, Brian Mosallam, described Engler during Thursday’s meeting as an individual with an instinct for division, callousness and hostility.

Yet the clash between Folt and the UNC system board shows political polarization overshadowing board actions elsewhere. And critics say the UNC board has been growing more polarized -- and more Republican -- for years.

The Board of Governors is elected by the state Legislature, which has been Republican since 2010. Some bemoan the dismantling of an arrangement that used to see Democratic and Republican lawmakers both appointing members of the board.

“Historically, there was a peace treaty between Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly,” said Hankins, of North Carolina. “It made perfect sense, and it worked well for many years back when the General Assembly members and governors of both parties didn’t disagree significantly at all about the value of the public university system and how important it was to the future of the state -- not just educating our citizens, but as an economic development engine.”

In the years since, critics have pointed to a long line of actions taken by state lawmakers and the system Board of Governors that they say amount to conservatives exercising too much influence over university governance.

In 2017, the Board of Governors overwhelmingly voted to prevent a center for civil rights at Chapel Hill’s school of law from engaging in litigation. In 2015, the state Legislature passed a law preventing monuments that are public property from being removed, relocated or altered without permission from the state’s historical commission. That law was passed amid protests over the Silent Sam statue, according to The News & Observer.

When Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. education secretary under President George W. Bush, became president of the UNC system, she soon found herself caught in a battle over a controversial state bathroom law. Tensions between the Board of Governors and Spellings, who was seen as interested in focusing on areas like assessment and completion when she first took the job, developed over several other issues, including Silent Sam. She decided in October to resign, and her last day was scheduled for this week.

So the power struggle that played out between Folt and the Board of Governors this week fit into long-running governance tensions tinged by politics.

Folt publicly issued her decision about the monument remnants and her own future while the board was meeting Monday. She and her supporters have maintained the chancellor has responsibility for matters of security on campus.

On Tuesday, after the board voted to accept Folt’s resignation at an early date, its chair, Harry Smith, told reporters he would have encouraged her to take a different approach.

“If this is the action you wanted to do, then let’s talk about it,” Smith said. “You know, the fact that we may not like governance and process doesn’t give us a right to usurp it. And whether you have the authority to do it or not isn’t congruent with the fact that we should follow the proper process and procedures that we had laid out.”

The Board of Governors isn’t the only board for Chapel Hill -- the flagship campus also has a Board of Trustees, although the statewide board hires and fires chancellors. After this week’s events, 20 former Chapel Hill trustees issued a statement that circulated in North Carolina media outlets.

The university faces challenges “created by the very people charged with governing it,” and the former trustees are unable to stay silent any longer, the letter says. Folt stood strong for the university, but during her tenure, increasing pressure from Raleigh and the Board of Governors “put politics ahead of the best interests of education, research and patient care,” it says.

“Silent Sam came to embody it all,” the letter says. “Tuesday, Chancellor Folt paid the price for her leadership and North Carolina lost another great opportunity to resurrect its history as a progressive part of this nation.”

The letter draws a line between Folt’s departure and that of Spellings. The board could not be satisfied to let either leader leave on her own terms, the letter says.

“Regardless of one’s view on Silent Sam, the Confederate monument had become a lightning rod for violence and intolerance on this campus and had to be removed,” the letter says. “We realize taking it down quickly was controversial. It is our hope that we will not have to continue fighting the Civil War by trying to resurrect it elsewhere on campus.”

With all of those words and actions flying, it’s reasonable to wonder whether it's possible that a single executive -- chancellor or president -- can lead in the UNC system under current conditions.

Folt thinks it is.

“Yes, it is absolutely possible to run a university,” Folt said Tuesday in a call with reporters held before the board voted to move up her last day. “We come to campus every day. I’ve got 30,000 students. Every one of them is a ray of sunshine.”

In the face of tensions at the board level, Folt spoke of mission. Leaders have both a mandate and an opportunity to make education available to everyone, she said.

“So no matter what happens to me in the future, I’ve had the greatest privilege of all to be a part of that,” Folt said. “I think that’s what chancellors and presidents feel every day. We live in the middle of the campus. So in spite of these conversations and these tensions, I’m going to walk out of this room and I’m going to see 15 students on the way back to my office, and they’re going to reinvigorate me for the future.”

Faculty members and experts voiced some concern that the issues at Chapel Hill had been boiled down to board versus chancellor. That dynamic shuts out a third party that is traditionally involved in shared governance at universities -- the faculty.

Chapel Hill’s Faculty Council unanimously voted in October to keep the statue off campus and remove its base, according to Sherryl Kleinman, professor emerita of sociology at Chapel Hill. Over 50 black faculty members agreed with that stance, she added.

Yet Folt backed a plan in December that would have housed the statue in a history center, and the faculty resolution was buried in a long appendix after a faculty member asked to have it added, Kleinman continued. The Board of Governors rejected that plan.

“It’s crucial that future chancellors ensure that faculty are at the table with administrators and the Board of Trustees when it comes to such important campus matters,” Kleinman said in an email. “If the chancellor and other administrators had lived up to the AAUP principle of shared governance, they would have received faculty expertise, strategies and support. By shutting out the faculty, the chancellor faced pushback from within and without.”

The situation cuts to the heart of the role of faculty and shared governance, said Cathy Trower, president of Trower & Trower, a firm providing governance consulting to nonprofit organizations, colleges and universities. Do faculty matter, or does the situation come down to the powerful boards and their dynamics with the chancellor, she asked.

But Trower also addressed the political dynamics at play.

“We should definitely be concerned about this,” she said. “What happens nationally plays out on college campuses and always has. It’s one of the reasons things are a little scary right now for a lot of presidents who feel they are in precarious positions, especially at public institutions.”

In crisis situations, Trower asks boards to consider their own performance before hiring a president. How does the board function as a partner for that executive? And when leaders must make difficult decisions, she asks everyone to think about the institution’s mission and values.

She sounded a hopeful note.

“If we can’t solve some of this on college campuses, who are we kidding?” Trower asked. “This is where we should be dealing with these issues. We should be, I think, leaders on those issues. That’s what students come to us -- hopefully -- in part to learn.”

Only time will tell whether UNC and Michigan State leaders are set up to move past the political overtones and find a way to address the issues at hand. Many worry that with Spellings and Folt gone, few leaders are left in a position to protect Chapel Hill from outside influences.

At Michigan State, some trustees tried to look forward after accepting Engler’s resignation Thursday morning.

“I’m sorry it took so long,” said Kelly Tebay, a newly elected trustee, her voice cracking with emotion. “I really hope this is the first step in a long road to really changing the culture of this institution that we all love so much.”

The board’s chair, Byrum, thanked those throughout the university for keeping it dedicated to its mission.

“I believe this is the beginning of a better relationship, both among board members and to the MSU community as we continue the healing and pay respect to the survivors,” she said.

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