University leadership and governance is always influenced by politics, members of the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina told a sparsely attended public forum last week in Asheville.
The forum, the second in a series of statewide panels, was called to address concerns raised by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper about “undue political influence and bureaucratic meddling” that hinders effective governance at the UNC System’s 16 public universities, including the University of North Carolina Asheville.
The UNC System’s Board of Governors is chosen by the Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans. Of the current 24 voting members, 23 are Republicans, with a single Democrat.
In creating the Commission last November, Gov. Cooper said partisan agendas can have significant impacts on campus leadership, turnover and academic experience for students, and can threaten the university’s reputation and the state’s economy and communities.
Asheville Watchdog reported on the high turnover of leadership, faculty and staff at UNC Asheville along with a stunning drop in student enrollment and retention since 2015.
The 15-member commission, co-chaired by Margaret Spellings, a Republican, and Thomas W. Ross Sr., a Democrat — both former presidents of the UNC System — is examining how the UNC System’s governance can better reflect the state’s ethnic, racial, gender, regional, economic and political diversity.
Louis Bissette, a former mayor of Asheville, a former chair of the Board of Trustees of the UNC System, and a current member of the Board of Trustees of UNC Asheville, was one of two members of the commission who led the discussion in Asheville. He was joined by John Fraley, a current member of the UNC System Board of Governors and a former Republican state representative from Mooresville.
Despite the central issue of political interference in the university system, “You’re not going to get politics out of the university system,” Bissette said.
“There’s always been a political element” in university governance, Fraley agreed.
Yet balance is a concern, Bissette, a Republican, said. “No matter what party is in power, you need a voice from the other side,” he said.
One suggestion for reform was to have representation on the Board of Governors be distributed by geography. Another suggestion was that the size of the Board of Governors be expanded once again to 32 members, having been reduced to 24 several years ago.
The Asheville forum, which was held at the Chamber of Commerce, was the second in a statewide series of six seeking public input on how the governance of the UNC System can be improved. The forums started in Wilmington on Feb. 21. The next public forum will be March 13 in Charlotte, followed by meetings in Greenville, Greensboro, and Durham.