Commentary

Dr. Jesse White: Partisan takeover of Board of Governors risks disaster for UNC

Dr. Jesse L. White, Jr.

In case you missed it, there was an excellent op-ed this past weekend in Raleigh’s News Observer about the far right’s hostile takeover of the UNC Board of Governors by veteran academic and public servant, Dr. Jesse L. White, Jr. In “‘Partisan creep’ brings UNC to the edge,” White, a native of Mississippi who came to North Carolina in part because of the open and progressive spirit at UNC, draws some apt and frightening parallels between the current conservative onslaught and the battle waged by segregationists and others resisting progress in his home state during the 20th Century.

Here is the conclusion to White’s essay:

“While nothing yet rivals the disasters in my home state of Mississippi, the trends and actions of the BOG toward partisan oversight and micromanagement are troubling. It is a slippery slope.

The bill of particulars against the BOG is mounting, and leaders from both political parties are speaking out: former President Erskine Bowles, former BOG members Hannah Gage, Fred Eshelman and Paul Fulton, as well as other prominent North Carolinians like Hugh McColl.

The bill of particulars includes the bizarre and indefensible firing of former President Tom Ross, followed by the hiring of Margaret Spellings with little faculty or student input. Next came the farcical ‘study’ of university centers which was seemingly aimed at closing the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at Chapel Hill. And, recently, there was the successful assault on the Center for Civil Right at UNC Chapel Hill’s law school, forbidding it from litigation despite the undeniable pedagogic value to students.

There has recently been the further politicization of the board under the leadership of professional politicians like Tom Fetzer, former head of the state GOP, and former state senator Bob Rucho. And, now, shudders run down the spine with the legislative mandate and BOG task force on free speech.

It is true that politics has circulated in the board for years, as one would expect of a board elected by the General Assembly, a method of board selection which I think is unique in the U.S. However, what has changed is the degree of micromanagement and interference with campus governance. Gage refers to this change as ‘partisan creep.’ The connection between the highly partisan General Assembly and the BOG has brought us to a dangerous tipping point.

The system-wide Faculty Assembly chairman presented 17 accreditation issues to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools which in return issued a warning to the board about micromanaging the constituent universities and politicizing the academy. It should be said that despite the questionable process of her hiring, Spellings appears to be emerging as a voice of reason in leading the system through these troubled waters. I say that as one who protested her hiring.

Ole Miss in 1962? The loss of schools’ accreditation in Mississippi in the 1920s? Perhaps not that bad – yet. However, all of us who love this special university should keep a close watch. The stakes could not be higher.”

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