Chaos in North Carolina

A governing board and legislature are at odds, a finalist's name is leaked and a presidential search is criticized as too secretive. Many in North Carolina wonder: Is the university's leadership becoming too politicized?

October 19, 2015
Board chairman and search committee member John Fennebresque is being criticized for leading a botched and secretive search.

Chaos shrouds a controversial presidential search at the 16-campus University of North Carolina system: a prominent finalist’s name has been leaked, the system’s governing board suffers fractious infighting, and the state Legislature and many faculty members are concerned the search lacks transparency.

Contention is nothing new to the North Carolina system. Earlier this year the 34-member Board of Governors pushed out the well-regarded system president, Thomas Ross, with board chair John Fennebresque declining to give a specific reason for Ross’s ouster. In that vacuum, many have concluded that the Republican-leaning board, which has followed the tidal wave of political change that gave North Carolina its first fully Republican government since Reconstruction, wanted the system to have a leader whose political views aligned with their own.

Now the search for Ross’s successor has also been marred by heated disagreements, as well as the leak of the name of Margaret Spellings, George W. Bush’s former secretary of education, as a finalist for the presidency. Such a leak is a major snafu for such a high-profile search at a prestigious university system, where candidates normally require and rely on secrecy during the search process.

And several board members are concerned the search committee -- which is made up of 11 board members, including Fennebresque -- is trying to keep them out of the decision-making process by only presenting one finalist.

That’s a possibility that also worries the Legislature, which passed a measure earlier this fall that requires the North Carolina board to consider at least three finalists for the system presidency. The bill would also subject board members to term limits. Yet that bill is currently sitting on Governor Pat McCrory’s desk, and the governor has until Oct. 30 to either sign it into law, veto it or let it lapse into law.

So when an emergency board meeting, in which Spellings's candidacy would be the topic of discussion, was scheduled for Friday afternoon with less than two days' notice, concerns abounded that the search committee -- and Fennebresque in particular -- was trying to circumvent the bill before it became the law and rush an approval of Spellings as president. Yet the board says that's not the case, and a spokeswoman has said multiple finalists will be considered for the presidency.

“The will of the Legislature has been very clearly established in this legislation, and that brings the question of why this emergency meeting?” asked James Moeser, a former chancellor of UNC Chapel Hill who, as interim chancellor of the UNC School of the Arts in 2013 and 2014, worked closely with the current governing board. Meanwhile, multiple board members said in letters to Fennebresque that they were so disillusioned with the chair, they could not support Spellings as a candidate unless Fennebresque were to resign.

“There’s tension within this board and they’re quarreling with their legislative masters. It’s really bizarre. It’s a classic example of a circular firing squad,” Moeser said, adding of Spellings’s candidacy being made public despite the confidential nature of high-level searches: “Someone leaked it on purpose. There’s something going on here.”

Yet what exactly is going on is unclear to many who are watching events in North Carolina unfold, and so far the board and concerned legislators have limited their comments to written statements and have declined interview requests. For many, the system's direction and goals have been the subject of mystery since the firing of Ross, if not before.

The board has not made any statement since its Friday meeting, and though Spellings is reported to have been present at the meeting, a system spokeswoman has said the board isn't discussing candidates publicly.

What’s Going On?

After word of the emergency meeting leaked, the state’s Republican legislative leaders -- Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore -- sent a letter to the board on Thursday urging them to follow the spirit of that passed bill even though the governor has not signed it yet. The bill received near-unanimous approval in both houses.

“Calling an emergency meeting to discuss only one candidate could be viewed as the board's attempt to circumvent the overwhelming will of the elected people of the state of North Carolina prior to the bill becoming law,” the letter reads. “Our concern is not about any candidate for the presidency but rather the process by which at least a few members of the board have utilized that appears to cut against the fundamental notions of transparency and procedural due process.”

Yet a statement released by the governing board on Friday afternoon says the board shares the Legislature’s “desire that the final selection not be hurried or made without consideration by the entire board” and says members understand the bill passed by the Legislature would require that the board “consider the names of at least three final candidates.” It says its search process will follow the “law as amended.”

Jim Carmichael, a library and information science professor at UNC's Greensboro campus and leader of the system’s American Association of University Professors chapter, said there’s a general lack of trust of the board by faculty members within the system, much of which stems from the dismissal of Ross. Similar sentiments were shared by several faculty members interviewed for this article.

“Tom Ross was the best system president we've had in a long time. We still have not accepted the fact that they are going right ahead with the search, that they are completely in the right and they can do whatever they want,” Carmichael said. “The board has been heavy-handed in the way they handled things and then of course the Legislature got heavy-handed with them and tried to micromanage them.”

Ross has been president of the system for five years, and is poised to step down once the Board of Governors selects a new leader. Ross is a native of North Carolina and previously served as the leader of Davidson College, a private college in the state. When Republicans took control of both houses of the Legislature in 2012, the university -- and Ross as its leader -- faced intense scrutiny from lawmakers who believed UNC had been treated with kid gloves by Democratic politicians. Even so, Ross's ouster blindsided faculty and leaders within the system, many of whom respected the president and are more suspicious of the board.

And as the system has experienced a shake-up within its leadership ranks, its flagship campus, Chapel Hill, in recent years has also weathered a National Collegiate Athletic Association investigation into a decades-long academic fraud scandal in which hundreds of athletes were steered toward no-show courses that were not taught by any faculty members.

Meanwhile, some fear that the Legislature’s involvement and the board’s infighting are signs that the governance of the system is becoming too politicized.

“The worry here is that somehow this great university system and the position of president will become politicized … it shouldn’t become partisan,” Moeser said. “Universities should not be whipsawed into partisan battles. They should be above that fray.”

Gabriel Lugo, a math professor at UNC Wilmington and chair-elect of the Faculty Assembly, the governing body that represents faculty from all 16 of the system’s campuses, agrees: “The fact that it’s being politicized is precisely the problem.” He said the infighting -- along with the controversial ouster of Ross -- is making a North Carolina position less attractive to candidates.

Added David Zonderman, a history professor and former head of faculty governance at North Carolina State: “If your own board is deeply conflicted about the process of which you were chosen, that would give me some pause.”

In fact, board member Thom Goolsby, a former state legislator, said in a letter to Fennebresque that any candidate, “no matter how qualified,” resulting from the flawed search would be “fruit from a poisonous tree” given criticisms about the chair’s leadership of the search.

Spellings, if selected, would not be the only UNC system president with experience in the executive branch. Erskine Bowles served as the system's leader from 2005 to 2010, and before that was tightly connected to President Bill Clinton's administration, including serving as the Democrat's chief of staff. Bowles had also twice vied, unsuccessfully, for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Some, like Moeser, are reserving comment on Spellings’s candidacy until a final selection is made. Others, like Zonderman, are concerned that a Spellings presidency would be one that emphasizes assessment over critical thinking. Carmichael says she likely “leans so far to the right that she will get a lot done in that direction,” which would be a boon for the Board of Governors, the majority of whom are Republicans. And traditionally outsiders -- leaders who come from outside the North Carolina higher education ecosystem -- have had a tough time in the job.

Secret Search

Lugo criticized the search for Ross’s replacement as being “clouded in secrecy” from its start.

“I’m not surprised we’re at this state where it’s not just the faculty or the students or the staff that feel left out, but other members of the board who feel they are left out of the process,” he said. “The search committee has conflated two different ideas. They’ve conflated confidentiality with secrecy, and that’s not the same thing.”

He surmises that the search committee’s inclination to keep a tight lid on its procedures and perhaps even circumvent the Legislature by only having one finalist led to the leak of Spellings as a candidate. “The problem with secrecy is the tighter you try to make something, the more it will leak,” Lugo said.

Zonderman agreed that most professors would prefer a more open search process in which multiple finalists were made public and discussed by faculty and staff members within the system. “Stakeholders throughout the state should be able to know the process,” he said -- although he realizes that’s less and less the norm in public higher education.

“That's not the trend in higher ed now; the trend is to make these very secret,” he continued, adding that most campuses just present one finalist, or oftentimes the selected candidate, to their campus, even after long and extensive searches. “Many faculty just feel that's not a good process. It’s very anticollegial, it seems antithetical to the spirit of the university, which is about open debate.”

Yet Moeser supports a confidential search that keeps all identities under wraps until a selection is made.

“I’m not a believer in open searches. … It limits the field,” he said. “People who have good positions as executives for universities or major nonprofits are not going to put themselves [at risk of exposure].”

Though the legislative measure would require the search committee to bring the board at least three finalists -- a general policy the Faculty Assembly supports -- the Assembly has sent a letter asking the governor to veto the bill because it didn’t like how the Legislature is involving itself in university affairs.

“It’s one thing for the board to follow a sound procedure, and another thing for the Legislature to dictate a procedure. When a legislature dictates a procedure, then it’s diminishing the authority of the board,” Lugo said.

Carmichael believes that, whatever the outcome of the search, the tumult of the last year is negatively affecting the system’s reputation. People are beginning to wonder if the UNC system, regarded by many as one of the premier public university systems in the country, is becoming dysfunctional.

“I get phone calls everyday from people I know from my line of work, and they say, ‘My God, what is going on in North Carolina?’” Carmichael says. “I’m very concerned.”


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