As Board of Governors continues with conservative new road map, some worry about direction

By: - October 10, 2017 1:38 pm
UNC System President Margaret Spellings with board members Harry Smith and Bob Rucho.

A new UNC Board of Governors Task Force began what members called the “massive” job of analyzing UNC President Margaret Spellings’ administrative staff Monday.

The effort is so far long on ambitions and short on specifics. It will use as its road map the Report on Organizational Effectiveness done by the Boston Consulting Group back in 2015 and presented in March of last year. On Monday task force members discussed that report, but said they intend to do their own research into how to make the system’s administration more efficient and less expensive.

The work of the task force – and that of another recently formed task force on Board of Governors meetings – is already stoking fears that a new, more conservative faction on the board plans to build on a series of controversial, partisan moves – and take things to the next level.

“It is just clear from what has already happened that the board doesn’t have any respect for academic freedom, for the will of the faculty and students or really even for Spellings,” said Dr. Altha Cravey.

Dr. Altha Cravey (Photo:

Cravey, a tenured professor of Geography at UNC-Chapel Hill,  has been outspoken about what she says are the board’s aggressive moves to micro-manage campuses and administrators to carry out the will of the Republican dominated General Assembly.

Cravey’s sentiments are shared by a number of other professors, administrators and even some members of the Board of Governors – many of whom say they’re uncomfortable speaking on the record about the issue for fear of reprisal or intensifying an already politically tenuous situation.

Monday’s meeting came amid a series of skirmishes between the Board of Governors, UNC Chancellors and the administration – including Spellings herself.

Late last month Spellings sounded off on the tensions in an interview with WRAL.

“Let me manage the enterprise, and let them set policy,” Spellings said in the interview “Let them see, understand and defer to the chancellors and me, who have a lot of experience.”

Critics of the board say one need only look at who leads the two new task forces to understand that experience is considered much less valuable than ideology.

Ideologues and academics

The Task force on UNC Board of Governors Meetings is chaired by Tom Fetzer – an influential lobbyist from Wilmington and former mayor of Raleigh who was once chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party.

Tom Fetzer

Fetzer was only appointed to the board in March but has already made a splash. At last month’s full meeting of the board he quoted Margaret Thatcher, the conservative firebrand and former British Prime Minister, on the uselessness of political consensus and the need to embrace beliefs, principles and values over agreement on a way forward.

Last week’s first meeting of the task force on meetings reflected that philosophy.

Though Spellings and other task force members pushed back on several suggestions about how to streamline meetings, Fetzer and members of the board’s more conservative faction dominated the meeting. Input from staff on the cost of live-streaming or video-archiving committee meetings was politely brushed aside. Several other suggestions that met with resistance were presented matter-of-factly as bringing common-sense, modern business practice to a board whose processes badly need a makeover.

John McGowan a professor who has taught in the English Department at Chapel Hill for 25 years, said what he’s seen of that kind of talk doesn’t reflect reality. Recent suggestions about minimizing the role of chancellors and campus administrators in Board of Governors meetings, McGowan said, reflect neither the realities of academic institutions or solid business principles.

“There is certainly a notion that a lot of these people want to revise the system but do not understand higher education,” McGowan said. “But the truth is, businesses aren’t run this way either. You don’t keep the CEOs out of the room, you don’t find ways for them to not be there. Corporate boards of governance aren’t’ running the businesses this way. No corporation runs that way.”

Monday’s meeting of the board’s Task Force on the Purpose of UNC General Administration was a bit more relaxed and expansive.

Its co-chairs, board members Harry Smith and Bob Rucho, took pains to minimize their disagreements with Spelling and the administration. They attributed them to inaccurate and unfair press coverage and pledging support to the embattled president.

Smith, vice-chairman of the full board, derided “editorial attacks” on the board as “childish at best.”

“We’re behind our president,” Smith said.

“We’re going to support her,” Smith said. “I think it’s important to understand that we’re going to support her in the fact that she may have strong views and opinions that she needs to express that may not align with the board of governors.”

Rucho called existing tensions “natural.”

“When you have a board of directors and a manager in a private business, there’s always disagreements,” Rucho said. “The ultimate goal is the policy makers, who are the Board of Governors, in consultation with the president establish a policy we all agree upon and move forward in the best interests of the institution.”

Smith and Rucho are both part of the more conservative wing of the almost entirely Republican board that has recently butted heads with Spellings and UNC Chancellor Carol Folt.

Rucho, who came on the board with Fetzer back in March, is seen by the board’s critics as a near perfect example of the partisanship-above-all makeup of the board of governors, which now features a large number of former GOP legislators.

Until last year Rucho was one of the most powerful – and most combative – Republican lawmakers in the state.

A Republican from Matthews, he served for 17 years in the N.C. Senate, where he held key leadership roles and was an architect of political redistricting plans struck down as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

His rhetoric – which included frequent attacks on the media, spats with GOP leadership over tax policy and comparisons of liberals to Nazis and terrorists – brought him into conflict with even fellow conservative Republicans.

Rucho was vague about how UNC administration might be remade, saying new interviews with stakeholders in the system will be needed before the task force delivers its recommendations to the board three months from now.

“Our goal is to get our students graduated in a timely manner with the least amount of debt, and that includes lowering tuition which is one of the goals that this Board of Governors,” Rucho said.

Everything that can help accomplish those goals will be considered, Rucho said – including a restructuring of how the UNC General Administration works and and what its responsibilities will be going forward.

“What do we want them to do?” Rucho said. “Are there areas we shouldn’t be participating in anymore? Maybe they should be sent down the university level, to do the work we’re doing now?”

Much of Monday’s discussion focused on reports from the administrative office that members feel may no longer be necessary.

A majority of the general administration’s work – about 58 percent, according to a report heard by the board – is mandated by system policy or state or federal statute.

The board’s current relationship with the General Assembly is good, Rucho said – and he believes that if a good argument can be made for reducing the work of the UNC administration, legislators will clear the way for it to happen.

Some faculty and campus administrators are privately sharing concerns that may mean a house cleaning at general administration in Chapel Hill – which the full board has recently discussed moving elsewhere to reduce the prominence of the flagship campus – and more work for already strapped staffs at individual campuses.

Spellings, for her part, pushed back little in Monday’s meeting. Instead, she touted her own work in getting the Boston Consulting Group report off the ground just after she was appointed and pledged to help the task force in its work.

“I hope there’s nobody around this table who cares more about an effective, mean, lean fighting machine at General Administration and the system level than myself and your senior leaders,” Spellings said to the task force. “We welcome your scrutiny and your advice as we achieve that goal.”

In the meantime, the board’s committees, task forces and sub-committees – where much of the detail work is done – continue.

The UNC Board of Governors Committee on University Governance, Free Expression Policy Subcommittee will meet Wednesday, October 11 at 1:30 the Board Room of the Spangler Center,  910 Raleigh Road in Chapel Hill.

The meeting, which is open to the public, was announced Monday morning. No agenda was publicly available as of Tuesday afternoon.

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.