The UNC system endures a tumultuous year

By: - December 22, 2015 1:00 am

UNC BOGThe past year was a whirlwind for the state’s acclaimed public university system, beginning with the surprise ouster of its much-respected president and ending with the selection of a successor whose career has been deeply steeped in national Republican politics.

In between, the governing board of the university system saw significant infighting among members on public display, faced accusations of academic censorship and infuriated some with a secret vote this fall to raise most chancellors’ pay by tens of thousands of dollars while rank-and-file staff received a $750 bonus.

Not all news was bad news, however. There were successes, including the awarding of a Nobel Prize to a longtime biochemistry professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. Both UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University were ranked by Kiplinger as top values for public universities in the nation.
The university system also emerged from the state budget negotiations without the deep budget cuts it has weathered in past years, though tuition will continue to go up for students.

Here are five major things that happened in the UNC system in 2015:

1. Firing of Tom Ross

The dismissal of the highly-respected UNC President Tom Ross in January took many by surprise, including Ross. In a move coordinated by the chair of the Board of Governors, John Fennebresque, Ross agreed to stay on at the helm of the public university system for another year though he remarked at a press conference following his ouster that he “would love to be here forever.”

Ross’s unexpected departure was never fully explained by the UNC governing board, though some members indicated a general desire to bring change to the 17-campus system that educates more than 220,000 students.

But politics were rumored to be at the heart of the decision, as Ross, a Democrat and former Davidson College president, had been hired in 2011 when the UNC Board of Governors was dominated by appointees put in place by what was then a state legislature controlled by Democrats. After Republicans came into power that year, all of the board’s 32 appointments have subsequently switched over to Republican control.

Ross will leave UNC next month and has not said what is next for him.

2. Closure of three academic centers

The UNC Board of Governors also took an unusual foray into campus-level administration this year, when it conducted a system-wide review at the behest of the state legislature of more than 200 centers and institutes. The lengthy review culminated in February with the decision to shut down three academic centers with a progressive focus – the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill, the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at N.C. Central University and the N.C. Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University.

The poverty center (which received funding from outside the university system) was long believed to be review’s intended target because its director, law professor Gene Nichol, has been one of the most outspoken critics of policies pushed forward by Republican state politicians.

At a February meeting held at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte campus to approve the closures, student protesters decried the decision and board members opted to shut down the meeting and finish in a smaller room. Protesters and many members of the public were not allowed in, raising questions about whether the meeting violated the state’s open meeting laws.

After the closures, the Board of Governors’ decision attracted national attention and was met with accusations of academic censorship. Nichol has continued his research on poverty in a newly established program at the law school.

Earlier this month, Western Carolina University leaders approved the creation of a new Center for the Study of Free Enterprise that will be funded in part by a foundation controlled by the controversial conservative billionaire, Charles Koch.

3. Infighting among board members

Rarely has the UNC Board of Governors been the subject of as much intrigue as it was in 2015. But rarely have differences on the board been so acute, and aired in such a public fashion.

The 32-member board, who all received their appointments from the Republican-dominated state legislature, saw significant infighting throughout the year, sparked by Ross’ ouster and escalating as the search for his successor got underway. Board members lobbed harsh criticism about a lack of transparency at chair John Fennebresque, a Charlotte attorney with a brusque personal style. Former state Sen. Thom Goolsby, an outspoken Republican who joined the UNC board this summer, wrote in emails to Fennebresque leaked to media that “a majority of the board lacks confidence in your continued leadership.”

Fennebresque stepped down from his position a few days after Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. Education Secretary in President George W. Bush’s administration, was named as the next president of the UNC system in October.
Divisions could well continue in 2016 – especially between comparatively moderate members of the board and those with a more conservative bent.

Relations with the General Assembly are another source of potential discord. At a meeting this fall, new UNC Board of Governors member Joe Knott said Fennebresque faced inappropriate pressure from some state lawmakers during the presidential search, an accusation that Knott declined to elaborate on and one that several of his fellow board members refuted.

4. Hiring of Margaret Spellings

After a contentious search process, former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings was selected this fall to be the next leader of the UNC system.

Spellings served as President George W. Bush’s Education Secretary, and had been running his presidential center in Texas when she was selected for the North Carolina job.

With decades of experience navigating political environments in both Washington and Texas, Spellings does not come to the job without controversy.

She has little higher education experience and was a major proponent of the Bush administration’s troubled “No Child Left Behind” education initiative. As Bush’s education secretary, she also penned a letter criticizing a PBS children’s show for featuring a gay couple and, when asked about that after her UNC hire, she said “I have no comment about those lifestyles.”

Spellings also has ties to the for-profit education sector, having served on the board of the Apollo Group, the parent company for the University of Phoenix, and Ceannate, a company that works in the student debt collection industry.

A faculty group backed by the SEIU, Faculty Forward NC, has already objected to Spellings’ appointment because of the process that got her the job, her connections to for-profit higher education industry and her LGBT comments.

The faculty assembly at Appalachian State University voiced similar criticisms, and passed a resolution recently expressing “serious concerns” about Spellings’ selection.

5. State budget passes and big raises, for those at the top

This summer’s budget negotiations, which dragged into the fall months, avoided implementing deep cuts like those the university system weathered in years past, but still required tuition increases as state funding levels continued their downward trends.

The system got a $100 million increase overall, which largely went to fund enrollment growth. That increase led system leaders to call it “the best budget” since the start of the Great Recession.

But that doesn’t mean the budget was an overall win for the university system. In keeping with a practice used for several years, legislators called for “management flexibility reduction” of $18 million this year, with an additional $43.5 million in cuts planned for the following year.

The legislature also eliminated the “Academic Summer Bridge Program” which allowed first-generation and other incoming freshman at several institutions to spend time on campuses before their official fall enrollment as a way to adjust to the demands of college.

There were raises this year for university employees, with a big difference between what rank-and-file staff and those at the top received.

Like all other state employees, university employees received a $750 bonus from the state budget.

But their bosses found out in November they would get much more substantial pay boosts when the UNC Board of Governors approved pay hikes of 8 to 19 percent, or $20,000 to $70,000, for a dozen of the system’s 17 chancellors in a secret vote.

Finally, here are some key items that will bear close watching in 2016:

1. President Spellings

Spellings will begin her $775,000-a-year job in March, and, as detailed above, her appointment will not be universally embraced.

She is also coming into the job as higher education faces rapid changes and challenges in its delivery of classes and how it reaches non-traditional student populations. Colleges across the nation, as well, are seeing students confront how diversity plays out on their campuses.

How she transitions to the job and adapts to a state in which she has never lived before will be one of the biggest higher education stories to watch in 2016.

2. Bond proposal

Voters will decide in the March primary whether to back a $2 billion bond proposal that includes $980 million in projects at UNC campuses. The proposed project promises to be the biggest investment in the university system’s infrastructure in years.

Among the projects proposed are a western campus for the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics (a competitive high school for the state’ brightest teenagers), a $110 million Natural Sciences Building at Western Carolina University, a $105 million building for nursing and STEM-related programs at UNC-Greensboro and a $10.6 million renovation of a science building on the Fayetteville State University’s campus. (Click here for more information on the proposed projects.)

The bond vote will be held at the same time as the presidential primary, which could, due to the heated nature of the Republican presidential contest, bring out a large number of conservative voters reluctant to back a $2 billion bond.

3. Conclusion of the athletic scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill?

This year could bring a conclusion to the long-simmering academic-athletic scandal that has enveloped UNC-Chapel Hill.

An ongoing investigation by the NCAA into fake classes taken by students, including athletes, has been going on for several years, after reporting from the News & Observer’s Dan Kane exposed the existence of hundreds of bogus classes, many of which were taken by college athletes. The state’s flagship campus has spent millions on legal bills and public relations since the scandal erupted.

4. Racial tensions and affirmative action

Campuses across the nation have seen student protests confronting how race and diversity plays out on campuses, with North Carolina’s public universities being no exception.

Student groups continue to protest the “Silent Sam” statue on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus commemorating long-dead students who fought for the Confederacy, while a group of UNC-Greensboro students called for the renaming of Aycock Hall earlier this year (N.C. Gov. Charles Aycock was also a prominent leader in the state’s white supremacy movement) in addition to more investments in academic programs that study race and minority experiences.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this month in a major affirmative-action case out of Texas, Fisher v. University of Texas in which the white plaintiff argued that she should have been admitted to the Texas college but wasn’t because of her race.

A similar federal lawsuit filed seeking to undo affirmative action admission policies at UNC-Chapel Hill has been put on hold pending the outcome of the Fisher case.

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Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few, former Investigative Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch for five years, conducted investigations and watchdog reports into issues of statewide importance. Ovaska-Few was also staff writer and reporter for six years with the News & Observer in Raleigh, where she reported on governmental, legal, political and criminal justice issues.