Power Plays on UNC Board

Implosion of Western Carolina University chancellor search once again exposes deeper struggle at UNC System, with many fearing that political interests are overtaking academic issues.

August 3, 2018
 
UNC System Office

When the search for the next Western Carolina University chancellor broke down in spectacular fashion last month, it once again revealed a University of North Carolina System unsettled by leaders jostling for power.

The search fell apart after an outspoken member of the system’s Board of Governors, Tom Fetzer, independently hired a screening firm and proceeded to question the leading chancellor candidate’s background. Fetzer has said he was trying to prevent the board from making a bad decision. But several of his fellow board members sharply criticized him for overstepping his bounds, not following established processes and breaching confidentiality in what the system pledged would be a closed search.

Fetzer’s actions can be read as an implicit challenge to University of North Carolina System president Margaret Spellings’s powers, because the Western Carolina search was supposed to follow a prescribed path with Spellings as a gatekeeper. A 22-member search committee was to recommend finalists to the Western Carolina local Board of Trustees. Trustees were to advance a slate of candidates to Spellings, who would forward one finalist to the Board of Governors for approval.

It wasn’t the first time in Spellings’s 29-month tenure that the UNC System has been tested by power plays -- carried out by both the Board of Governors and the state Legislature that appoints the board’s members.

Virtually from the moment she took over in the spring of 2016, she was put on the spot by a controversial bathroom law supported by state lawmakers that the Obama administration cited as evidence that the University of North Carolina's campuses were violating Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Two years ago, lawmakers faced accusations of meddling in university business after they passed legislation to create an environmental public policy laboratory at the flagship Chapel Hill campus, upsetting faculty members who felt established planning processes were being violated and who eyed the laboratory's politically connected research director uneasily.

Then last year, the Board of Governors unexpectedly created committees to examine reorganizing Spellings’s staff and to consider moving the administration offices out of Chapel Hill. Also last year, the board banned UNC centers from performing litigation, a move that effectively targeted a center for civil rights. Attempts to address the Silent Sam Confederate soldier statue on Chapel Hill’s campus led to board members criticizing Spellings, and the statue continues to be a problem for leaders.

Critics and faculty members worry the developments demonstrate a power grab by politically minded interests -- and a disregard for traditional university governance structures designed to protect academic freedom by insulating campuses from the whims of the powerful. It’s not surprising North Carolina’s GOP-dominated Legislature has appointed a board that is almost entirely Republican, they point out. Observers say that board is being filled with members who have increasingly close ties to the state’s Republican Party.

If that outlook is true, Spellings is serving as a key line of defense between the university system and the impulses of the Republican Party of North Carolina -- an unexpected role for President George W. Bush’s secretary of education.

When she took the UNC job, observers assumed she was attracted by the idea of focusing on completion, affordability and assessment issues. She has managed to emphasize those points. Yet they remain overshadowed by the bruising battles over social issues that have regularly catapulted the system into headlines.

So far, Spellings has proven to be a pragmatist and a skilled diplomat who can negotiate prickly political situations while keeping her eye on the big picture. But faculty observers wonder how long she will be able to keep the system from descending into dysfunction. Meanwhile, her name has been floated for the open University of Texas System chancellor position, although it’s not clear whether she would consider the job in her home state.

Some resolution to the UNC system’s governance issues may be inevitable after the circumstances surrounding the scuttled Western Carolina chancellor search became public last week, said David A. Green, the chair of the UNC Faculty Assembly and a professor of law at North Carolina Central University.

“My sense is that it addressed the elephant in the room,” he said. “People, now, will have to have clear, direct conversations about what is the role of the Board of Governors, what is the role of the Board of Trustees. What is the president’s role?”

In the UNC System, boards of trustees work at the campus level. Their appointment has also been the subject of political maneuvering in recent years.

Chancellor Search Objections

UNC System board members were supposed to vote July 12 on a chancellor candidate to succeed the late David Belcher, who last year took a leave of absence and died in June of brain cancer. But they never voted, despite a long closed-door session.

Then it emerged that Fetzer had hired a firm where a friend worked to check out a top chancellor candidate. On July 11, Fetzer emailed some board members, questioning the candidate’s lecturing history. He would later say there was a misrepresentation of fact on the candidate’s résumé.

On July 16, Western Carolina announced the finalist for the position had withdrawn from consideration and the chancellor search would be put on hold. Interim chancellor Alison Morrison-Shetlar is continuing in that role.

A tense situation erupted between board members last week, with some members accusing Fetzer of breaching confidentiality by disclosing secret information to a third party. He also drew criticism for allegedly violating board policy and process. He defended himself by saying a good hire was more important than process.

Fetzer did not respond to a request for comment filed through his company, Fetzer Strategic Partners. His actions have been panned by media outlets in North Carolina.

They are unethical by any practical standard, a Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial argued. Fetzer isn’t a passive interested party, it said. He is a former Western Carolina trustee who acknowledged he’d been recommended by two former board members to be the university’s interim chancellor. The editorial went on to say the Board of Governors should examine whether it was appropriate for Fetzer to gain access to otherwise confidential information and whether it was ethical for him to give that information to a private screening firm he hired personally.

Elsewhere, a columnist for the Smoky Mountain News wrote that the “yoke of political influence” is growing heavier on the Board of Governors.

“Because much of the process used to replace a chancellor is shrouded in secrecy, those who care deeply about this university and its faculty and staff are left guessing as to what exactly happened,” wrote Scott McLeod. “But there are many of us who can’t help but suspect the worst kind of chicanery, especially given the brand of politics played by the current legislative leadership. It’s a sad state of affairs, particularly if our great university system becomes just a pawn in this ongoing power play.”

Faculty leaders were unhappy with the chancellor search even before it ended in flames. They suggested problems were inevitable in a closed chancellor search allowing for no public forums with finalists.

While it might make sense to have a closed process early on, at the point when finalists are determined, searches should be transparent, said Brian Railsback, chair emeritus of the Western Carolina University Faculty Senate. Transparency allows those on campus to offer input and vet candidates, he said.

The closed search was a highly undemocratic process, argued Railsback, who is an associate professor in the English department at Western Carolina. When the majority of people on a campus have no input or knowledge of chancellor candidates, a small number of people influence the outcome, making it easy for politics to intrude.

“Who does this process serve?” he asked. “It serves political interests. It allows a small number of people to manipulate a process.”

The Board of Governors is reviewing the hiring process for chancellors. That’s a silver lining, said Railsback. But the current chair of the university’s Faculty Senate, Damon Sink, urged caution.

“If the BOG process revisions result in less participation by stakeholders such as the WCU Board of Trustees, the institution, and community, we will be hard pressed to express much confidence in that process or its outcome,” he said in a statement. Sink is an associate professor in the university’s school of music.

An improved search process could help chancellors be more effective in their jobs, said Green, the chair of the system Faculty Assembly.

“If the process is not clean, it puts the new chancellor at a disadvantage,” he said. “You can have the best chancellor in the world, but if the process is not clean, it’s going to hurt your process.”

The chair of the Board of Governors, Harry L. Smith Jr., supports local control of chancellor searches. The Board of Governors should not be involved, he said in a news conference last week. Spellings endorsed confidentiality that is respected through the whole process.

Unsettled Roles

Perhaps the more immediate issue is whether system leaders can agree on their primary responsibilities. Smith has thrown his support behind Spellings, saying last week that he learns more about the difficulty of her job every day. It is tricky to manage the board, which is made up of 28 people, he acknowledged.

“I’ve said early and often that it’s my hope to work with a united board and develop a governance platform and take the personas out of it,” Smith said. “That is still the goal and will remain the goal. One thing I’ve learned is there is a lot of passion on the issues.”

Calibrating the relationship between the president and board members happens over time, Spellings said at the same press conference last week.

“What are the expectations?” she said. “What are theirs, what are mine? That’s going to develop over time. I think we’ve all learned a few things the last couple weeks, and I look forward to continuing the conversation.”

Spellings and Smith were not available for interview Thursday.

Spellings has in the past spoken at greater length about higher education’s lofty goals and its political realities. Higher ed is a “precious place where ideas are germinated for the good of society,” she said in an interview in September with WRAL, a television station in North Carolina. That doesn’t make sense to short-term thinkers or those worried only about the bottom line, she continued, before admitting she sounded a “little highfalutin.”

Soon enough, she addressed the reality that higher education is tied to politics.

“We’re in a political arena,” she said. “That’s what this is about. Everything in a public setting is going to have some politics. It’s going to have some regionalization. It’s going to have issues around the needs of particular localities or particular disciplines and on and on and on, and that’s actually part of the fun of it -- is how to do problem solving for big public policy issues in a setting that has all that drama, all those personalities, all those characteristics.”

At the same time, she asked for a board focus on the big picture.

“Let me manage the enterprise, and let them set policy,” she said. “Let them see and understand and defer to the chancellors and me, who have a lot of experience in the enterprise, while we leverage the talent and expertise of businesspeople, political people, the broad range of experience we have on this board.”

That doesn’t seem to have happened last month. Nor does it seem to align particularly well with an outlook Fetzer quoted last year, when he had been on the board for just two months.

He made news by quoting former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who called consensus the abandoning of all beliefs in search of something “in which no one believes but to which no one objects,” he said on Sept. 7, according to The News & Observer.

“Divisions in this board, if respectful, will be very helpful,” he said. “Raging internal conflict is a long-held American tradition, and I think even the casual student of history would have to agree that nothing great in this country occurred without a raging, raucous, robust, passionate debate beforehand.”

The Western Carolina search binds together issues that have been hanging over the system’s governance for quite some time, said Stephen Leonard, a past chair of the UNC Faculty Assembly and an associate professor emeritus at Chapel Hill. Faculty fear politicians are trying to use the university system for political purposes, trying to choke off its public resources and using it for patronage positions.

The system is in a crisis of governance “that has the potential for turning the university more sharply down the course of authoritarian capture and partisan manipulation,” Leonard wrote in a July 27 letter to the Board of Governors chair, Smith. “If the board’s increasingly emboldened proclivity for hubris and conceit is not moderated, you will be unable to retain the talented executive leadership you now have, and you will find it very difficult to attract talented leadership in the future.”

Asked in an interview about Spellings’s role protecting the university system, Leonard gave a response that seemed to echo an old adage: politics makes strange bedfellows.

“I’m no friend of Margaret Spellings -- I certainly disagree with a lot of what she’s said,” Leonard said. “But she does believe in public higher education. What she’s finding now is she’s got people who won’t even let her do her job.”

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