Wallowing in the mire: The UNC Board of Governors hits another low

By: - November 13, 2019 5:30 am
UNC Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer and former ECU interim chancellor Dan Gerlach.

“The hymn in church yesterday,” Dan Gerlach, the embattled former ECU interim chancellor, tweeted Sunday. “‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well…’ And it will.”

Whether you’re inclined to feel sympathy for Gerlach – ousted after an alcohol-involved scandal too tortuous to be believed – is one thing. But whether you’re inclined to his conviction is another. 

Surely, it is difficult to conjure faith for the Board of Governors’ piloting of North Carolina’s university system, which has, based on the board’s track record, taken the word “governance” to be a euphemism for “pillage and burn.”

Because this is a story about that board, Gerlach’s controversy devolved from an isolated scandal involving one man’s questionable judgment into a sordid tale of scorched earth politics and backroom bullying, entangling inexplicably, state Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, state House Majority Leader John Bell, and Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer. 

Indeed, the fallout from the Gerlach scandal is more worm-ridden than the scandal itself. 

As Policy Watch and other outlets reported, there were dueling probes of Gerlach’s conduct following a night of drinking and socializing with ECU students in September: one sanctioned by the UNC board, and another, haphazardly covert, inquisition at the behest of Fetzer, a GOP lobbyist, ex-Raleigh mayor and former chairman of the state Republican Party.  

Although Berger and Bell say they played no part, a lawyer Fetzer hired named Peter Romary dropped their two-ton names while angling for traffic and security cam footage of Gerlach that appeared to show him stumbling to his car and driving away that night in September. Fetzer, however, acknowledged his role in an interview with WBTV

Of course, that’s not proof of intoxication, which Gerlach steadfastly denies, but the court of public opinion rarely differentiates between conclusive and circumstantial evidence this ugly. Gerlach – the former head of the Golden Leaf Foundation, a one-time aide to Democratic former Gov. Mike Easley and, in the 1990s, a fiscal analyst at the progressive N.C. Justice Center, Policy Watch’s parent nonprofit – was, at one point, the favorite to retain the ECU chancellorship. But he stepped down last month, just hours before the security cam video emerged publicly at WRAL.

If you’re keeping count at home, it appears Fetzer has now spearheaded two rogue investigations undermining hopefuls for chancellorship posts in North Carolina. In at least one of those posts, the chancellorship at Western Carolina University, Fetzer had previously spoken with former UNC President Margaret Spellings about taking the job himself, although he denied any lasting interest in the position. Fetzer has also denied any interest in the ECU job.

There is no indication at this point that Fetzer will soon add “ex-Board of Governors member” to his illustrious list of former roles, but some of his fellow board members are, surely, incensed by this fall’s turmoil in Greenville, and Fetzer’s strange part in it.

As I write this, Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian is combing through reams of communications between UNC leaders in the Gerlach morass. It’s difficult to imagine that a moment of it will be flattering to this state and its university system, which deserves leadership, not a bumbling, “Dukes of Hazzard” caper.  

That system’s roots go deep, but this board’s political mayhem – its infighting, its reactionary politics – has leached any fertility from the soil. 

It once struck me, cynically, as misplaced anxiety when the legislature’s critics decried the cronyism of the board, as if such a thing represented a new phenomenon. The board was once abundant with esteemed Democrats; today they are Republicans. To the victor goes the spoils, right? But political affiliation isn’t the only thing that received a makeover. Today, it’s to the victor goes the spoiling. 

This lobbyist-laden board struggles to maintain any facade of integrity, any comportment in which expertise trumps proximity to power. Ambition is no substitute for vision. Political philosophy is no substitute for academic integrity. 

North Carolina’s university system chugs on at its 17 campuses, which sprawl from coastline to coastal plain to mountaintops, but it does so in spite of, not because of the leadership on this Board of Governors.

It is not North Carolina or its campuses that need to change to resolve the humiliation that’s torched Spellings and former UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, leaders who managed to flee with their integrity intact. It is this board. 

There are, of course, capable and thoughtful and virtuous academic leaders who share the legislature’s conservative philosophy. And if such a thing matters to those lawmakers who choose the UNC board, they should look for those leaders, rather than maintaining the UNC board as a bullpen for erstwhile politicos who might have lost races or fallen from public favor but wish to remain close to the game. 

Leading the UNC system ought to be an honor, not a stepping stone.   

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.