One day in the middle of January, two of the most influential men in North Carolina higher education sat down for a meeting.
Tom Ross, president of the UNC-system, and John Fennebresque, chairman of the Board of Governors, had worked together for four years, navigating issues of academic impropriety, shrinking state funding and adopting a new strategic plan outlining the University’s future.
Fennebresque, a wealthy Raleigh lawyer and big Republican donor, was elected chairman just six months before. A former judge and executive director of the progressive Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Ross had seen the board move from Democratic control when he was elected to Republican when the legislature and governor’s office switched parties.
Little is publicly known about what happened at that meeting, and both Ross and Fennebresque declined comment, but at the end of it, Ross stepped down from the position he had held since 2011.
The board wasn’t given much time to react after learning about Ross’s resignation, according to some members. A day after hearing the news, the board met for nearly two hours in closed session before releasing a joint statement with Ross on Jan. 16.
“There wasn’t a lot of time for deliberation and discussion among the board,” said Marty Kotis, a Greensboro businessman and only member to vote against Ross’s resignation contract. “Apparently it escalated very quickly during a meeting with John Fennebresque and Tom Ross. I felt the process hasn’t been handled properly. I think there was a better way.”
Several board members who were interviewed said they don’t know all the details of what happened during that meeting with Ross and Fennebresque. Member Steven Long, a Raleigh lawyer who joined the board in 2013, said he was disappointed in how the situation developed. “We would have liked for it to play out a little more smoothly,” Long said. “It didn’t.”
Yet the board still approved Ross’s resignation. Shortly after the vote, Fennebresque and Ross met with a crowd of reporters at a press conference, providing vague answers to why this happened. Using language contrary to the circumstances, the chairman piled on the compliments, saying that Ross is a model of “work ethic” and “perfect integrity.” Fennebresque insisted that Ross had been fired for no particular reason.
Befuddled by the announcement that appeared to come out of nowhere, reporters at the conference pressed the chairman for answers.
Is this because of Ross’s age? (Ross, 64, was nearing the time many presidents have historically retired). Fennebresque said Ross’s age had nothing to do with it.
Does this have anything to do with politics? “Absolutely not,” Fennebresque replied.
Sitting beside him, Ross looked grim.
Ross’s ousting is just part of a series of bold decisions the board has made in the past six months. Under North Carolina law, the board is responsible for overall guidance of the 17-campus system. Its 32 members are elected by the General Assembly for four-year terms. The board also elects the president as well as all campus chancellors.
The first move came when the board conducted a sweeping review of all the UNC-system’s institutes. The five-month process ended in February resulted in the closure of three centers — a poverty center at UNC-CH, an environment institute at East Carolina University and a voter engagement center at N.C. Central. Jim Holmes, the board member who led the review, said the process was about making the system work more efficiently. Protesters said it was an attack on academic freedom and social justice work.
In August, the board voted to cap the amount of tuition that a system school can use for need-based aid at 15 percent. UNC-CH, along with six other schools, will need to find a new way to pay for the programs because they exceed that limit. The board said it was a means to keep tuition low. Critics said it would limit access for low-income students.
And in February, at the same meeting where the board approved the institute review, members passed a tuition hike of nearly 4 percent across the system for in-state undergraduates next year. The board said the money would go to increasing faculty salaries in an effort to improve retention. Critics said it was another blow to the system’s reputation of providing an affordable education.
Hannah Gage, a former board chairwoman and now a non-voting advisory member, said the last few months have been “bumpy,” but she’s hoping they can move forward.
“I don’t think anyone on our board feels good about it,” Gage said. “I think everyone has learned a lot with the experience involving the president. I think we’ve learned a lot about ourselves and learned a lot about board responsibility. Every member wants to turn the page and focus on the positives.”
Gage said the board’s biggest hurdles are its lack of diversity and experience. Reflective of the changed political landscape of the state, in 2011 its makeup moved from Democratic to Republican control. The 32 members include six women, and all but three members are white. Most of the members, Gage said, have little to no experience with education, so the learning curve is steep.
“It’s just better that you have every voice at the table when you’re overseeing a public university,” Gage said.
Following every major vote, displeased faculty, administrators and students responded. Statements were released, petitions signed, protests organized, emergency meetings held.
“The members of the Board of Governors have demonstrated unfitness for their high office,” said Gene Nichol, the director of the poverty center, in a statement released after the vote to close his institute. “Their actions represent a profound, partisan and breathtakingly shortsighted abuse of power.”
Nearly 3,000 people signed a Change.org petition to reinstate Ross. It read, “This is a politically motivated attack by a radical Board that values partisanship over responsible university governance.”
Some UNC-CH students assembled an advocacy group, the UNC BOG Democracy Coalition. “We want to start drawing attention to this and ask the question why educators are not in charge of the education system,” said organizer Olivia Abrechet. “Is our University a place of learning or a business?”
But board members have insisted that politics have nothing to do with these decisions.
Member Anna Nelson, the daughter of billionaire C.D. Spangler, a past president of the UNC system, said she understands why people have taken issue with some of their actions.
“I think it’s important to people to understand all sides of an issue,” Nelson said. “Yet at the end of the day you have to choose a side.”
What’s happening in North Carolina is part of a broader trend playing out on campuses across the country. Universities have become political targets as conservative leadership boards, state assemblies and governors are stepping further into the affairs of these long-independent institutions.
The purpose of a governing board is to defend the University in the place of political attacks from the government and public, said Jordan Kurland, associate secretary for academic freedom at the American Association of University Professors, an organization that came out against the institute review. But that mission has changed as states are moving right, he said.
“One expects governing boards not to sway with the political tide like that,” Kurlund said. “They did sway. I hope that the next time around they’ll do what I think is really the fundamental role of a board of trustees.”
Louisiana slashed $600 million from higher education budgets next year, which would eliminate more than 80 percent of the state’s total funding. The state is facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall and to help balance it, higher education funding is the first to go.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker tried to change the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin’s widely respected system. The Wisconsin Idea is similar to the Carolina Way at UNC. In his budget proposal released earlier this year, Walker deleted a core principle: “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”
He also deleted the University’s goals “to educate people and improve the human condition” and “sever and stimulate society.”
In their place, Walker stated that the University should be more concerned with meeting “the state’s work force needs.”
Walker quickly backtracked on his changes after they were met with outrage. But his attempt to reconstruct Wisconsin’s higher education mission represents a recent tendency of state leaders to infuse rhetoric about Universities with business language. Talk of “returns on investment” and “efficiency” has become the go-to talking points on education.
In the fall of 2014, Gov. Pat McCrory delivered the keynote speech at UNC-Chapel Hill’s University Day, a celebration of the institution’s history that’s always marked with ceremony. Standing in front of former Gov. Jim Hunt, heralded as the “education governor,” McCrory proposed to “reform and adapt the UNC brand to the ever-changing competitive environment of the 21st century” and to “[hone] in on skills and subjects employers need.”
UNC law professor Gene Nichol and his poverty center have emerged as a case study for how far the Board of Governors will extend its authority.
When the institute review was announced last summer, Nichol knew what was coming. For years he had been making political leaders uncomfortable by writing editorials in The (Raleigh) News & Observer criticizing the state’s conservative leadership. It got to the point that he was required to include a disclaimer at the bottom of his letters saying that he didn’t speak for the University.
“There was never any doubt that the poverty center was going to be closed,” Nichol said. “I had been receiving threats from folks in the legislature for about two years, so this wasn’t a surprise to me…
“It was, ‘You have to stop writing articles for the N&O, or we’ll have to close down the poverty center and remove you as director.’ It seemed to me like the result of the Board of Governors review was preordained.”
Nichol, a burly former college football player who carries a white handkerchief in his pocket to wipe the sweat from his forehead, speaks in a drawling Texas accent when he talks about his passion for reducing poverty in North Carolina. He’s devoted most of his life to it. If there’s a silver lining to this controversy, Nichol says, it’s that people are more aware of how widespread poverty is in their own state.
Nichol came to UNC-CH because he believes it’s the strongest public university in the country that believes in being a public university, meaning that it’s an institution committed to an obligation to serve the people of North Carolina. But he worries that mission is in jeopardy.
“I think we have a BOG that doesn’t believe in that, and I worry that we have campus leadership that is not committed to that,” he said.
The board said closing the center was a matter of efficiency. The center, with a modest budget of about $100,000, hadn’t used state tax dollars since 2009. It was entirely reliant on private funding and employed a staff of a few law graduates and student volunteers.
Despite the board’s efforts, the center still exists, although in a different form. The sign will be taken down July 1, but a new fund has been created within the law school that’s earmarked for Nichol’s poverty research. Donations from individuals and institutes have flowed in, and Nichol said the fund’s budget is “substantially higher” than what the poverty center’s was.
“Love affairs can be one-sided,” Nichol said at a UNC BOG Coalition meeting in March. “They’re not always mutual. The University that I love so deeply is tremendously heartened when I give it full opportunity to distance itself from me.” Then Nichol paused to wipe his brow.
Will Nichol continue to write his editorials? “Of course,” he said. “Of course. I’m old and stubborn, and I don’t like being bullied by thugs.”
Friction between the Board of Governors and the University system is nothing new.
But former UNC chancellor James Moeser said there’s a real concern among faculty that the Board of Governors is taking a sharp turn into uncharted territory.
“The BOG historically has maintained a certain distance, and they’ve been a mega policy board for the whole system,” he said. “They’ve allowed the trustees to be board for the individual campuses and they haven’t micromanaged campus governance. Now, there are some disturbing trends in that direction.”
Jack Boger, dean of the UNC law school, has stood as Nichol’s most fervent advocate. Immediately following the board’s recommendation to close the poverty center, Boger released a statement expressing his full support of Nichol and called the decision “a betrayal of the University’s finest historical traditions and its future promise.”
Now, after the dust has settled, Boger said he’s worried about how the board’s behavior might affect faculty recruitment and retention. And it appears that might already be happening. Ross said at an educational forum April 22 that the attrition rate for professors at UNC-CH has jumped. In the past, the University usually had 30 out of every 100 professors with job offers end up leaving the campus. That increased up to 70 percent last year, he said.
“If you’re trying to recruit the finest people to a law school or to the science department or history department, and they see that in North Carolina the governors feel free to reach in and constrain as best it can the activities with which it disagrees, they simply say, ‘There are a lot of other places where we can do our work that doesn’t have those constraints,’” Boger said.
“We’ve offered a climate in which people can come and do the work that they’re interested in with an assurance of support and freedom of inquiry. If that starts to be clouded, the University of North Carolina all of a sudden has very few advantages.”