The Pulse

In open letter to Spellings and Ross, veteran academic urges dramatic overhaul of UNC System governance

By: - January 5, 2023 11:30 am
Margaret Spellings

Tom Ross

There are few signs that Republican legislative leaders have any interest in listening to — much less acting upon — any recommendations that may be forthcoming later this year from the new Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina that Gov. Roy Cooper established this past November. After all, as Joe Killian reported in great detail at the time, it’s pretty clear that the commission, which is headed by a pair of former system presidents (Margaret Spellings and Tom Ross) who were effectively ousted by those same GOP lawmakers, is unlikely to be handing out any “attaboys” to the General Assembly.

This from Joe’s story:

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) wasted no time dismissing the commission and its recommendation, issuing a statement Tuesday saying the legislature has no interest in making changes to the UNC System “regardless of whatever report this politically motivated commission produces.”

Moore has been personally implicated in a series of incidents involving political pressure in the UNC System and at its campuses, most recently allegations he pushed UNC-Wilmington trustees to name an old friend chancellor there.

His dismissal of the commission before its work has begun is not unusual, given the fraught political atmosphere that has engulfed the system for more than a decade.

Timothy Kaufman-Osborn – Photo:

Notwithstanding the early dismissals by Moore and company, there are those who are paying close attention to the Spellings-Ross commission and taking its work seriously — even if it’s more for the potential paths to progress it might chart for the future than any near-term reforms it might produce. One such close observer is veteran academic Timothy Kaufman-Osborn, the Baker Ferguson Professor of Politics and Leadership Emeritus at Whitman College in Washington state.

Soon after the commission was established, Kaufman-Osborn, who has authored several articles on academic governance, as well as the new book, The Autocratic Academy: Reenvisioning Rule Within America’s Universities (Duke University Press, 2023), penned a lengthy open letter to Spellings and Ross is which he urged them to seriously consider recommending a dramatic change to the way the UNC System is organized. In the letter, Kaufman-Osborn touts an interesting and provocative argument explored in his new book — namely that the corporate structure under which universities like UNC are organized — needs to be changed.

Kaufman-Osborn describes UNC’s governance system as a “worst of all worlds” autocracy in which the Board of Governors is utterly unaccountable to faculty, staff, campus trustees and students it oversees. As he puts it:

Rightly understood, in short, faculty and staff alike are subjects of an incorporated “body politic” ruled by outsiders selected by and beholden to other outsiders; and that constitution of rule is more akin to an imperial relationship than one befitting a nation built on a revolutionary rejection of English absolutism and endorsement of the principles of republicanism.

As an alternative, Kaufman-Osborn urges consideration of a more democratic model in which UNC would be organized under state law as a “membership corporation.”

Reconstitution of UNC as a membership corporation will advance the system’s autonomy and hence its capacity to sustain the academy’s status as a home to free inquiry. This corporate form is better equipped to do so precisely because it does not place ultimate authority in the hands of an external board whose appointees rarely understand the distinctive purposes and practices of higher education and, too often today, are so many hacks bent on enacting the anti-academic agendas of red state legislatures. Governing board members selected by and hence beholden to a corporation’s members are far more likely to remain fiduciaries in the true sense of that term, i.e., custodians who understand that fulfillment of the university’s mission requires the institutional independence that is a prerequisite of its work.

Of course, Kaufman-Osborn has no illusions that such a dramatic shift could win favor anytime soon at the Legislative Building. But he argues that the commission would do better to tackle and advance such a fundamental change than to only muddle around with piecemeal suggestions. Here’s his conclusion:

Given this unfortunate truth [the GOP promise to ignore the commission], how might North Carolina’s Commission on the Future of Public Universities most productively spend the eight months before its final report is due? In accepting the governor’s appointment, one of you rightly affirmed that “people need to be able to feel that they are represented in this enterprise. That sadly is not the case at the moment.” That trust might be partly restored by adopting piecemeal reforms that encourage creation of a less partisan and more diverse board of governors. This accomplishment will remain stunted, however, until those now ruled as subjects in the guise of employees are genuinely “represented in this enterprise,” and that requires structural changes that, happily, are already available in current law. If nothing else, should you reopen the question of UNC’s corporate identity, you will initiate a much-needed conversation about the form of rule that is best suited to further the university’s unique mission.

Click here to explore the full open letter.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.