UNC Board of Governors Chairman highlights conflicts, partisanship

UNC Board Chairman Louis Bissette, Jr.

If you’ve been following Policy Watch’s coverage of the UNC Board of Governors, a new column from board Chairman Louis Bissette, Jr. is worth your time.

Billed as a “year in review” piece for the Higher Education Work Foundation’s EdTalks series, the column spends an interesting amount of its real estate pointedly addressing partisanship on the board and the need for board members to put aside their ideological goals and work in a united way for the good of the university system.

From the piece:

It took political courage from far-sighted leaders to create the Board of Governors nearly 50 years ago in an effort to free our state’s public institutions from undue political influence. The independent governing board that emerged was designed to provide oversight, accountability, and guidance to our extraordinary System of 17 diverse and exemplary institutions.

It has always been a challenge to maintain the balance of freedom and accountability that has enabled the System to grow into one of the best public higher education systems in the nation. But the Board of Governors long understood it was not designed or expected to manage the day-to-day operations of the University or to choose sides in political controversies.

Today, however, that challenge seems greater than ever before. As a Board, we must return to that balance of freedom and accountability, refrain from any desire to intervene too directly and focus on our responsibility to improve an already excellent System by setting clear policies and expectations, and empowering our President, chancellors, faculty, and staff to meet them.

Accountability is especially important in a public system, but so is a governance structure that allows our campus leaders to use their considerable talents to navigate the many changes facing higher education today.


Bissette does tout some UNC system successes in the piece and praises embattled UNC System President Margaret Spelling, who has taken some lumps from some of the more conservative members of the board. But he wraps up the piece with what amounts to a talking-to to board members who have fomented conflict on the board, with administrators, professors and staff.

Again, from the piece:

But as we celebrate our progress, we must remember that the job is not about us — our views, our ideologies, or our individual interests. It is about the people of this great state, people who deserve the benefits and opportunities of a world-class University System.

For over 200 years, our System has served North Carolinians by educating and uplifting this great state. This important work happens far from our Board’s meeting rooms. It happens when a professor at UNC Pembroke trains nurses to serve southeastern North Carolina; when researchers at NC State and NC A&T create breakthroughs that power our economy; when physicians at UNC-Chapel Hill and ECU deliver cutting-edge treatments to families across North Carolina.

As a governing body, our job is to enable and promote this progress. We must operate as a united Board, focused on providing oversight, ensuring accountability and setting System policy while allowing our President, chancellors, faculty and staff to do their job. That’s the higher expectation our citizens have for us, and I’m confident our Board members can rise to meet it.

It’s worth recalling that Bissette, chairman for the last two years, has a history as a trustee of both Western Carolina and Wake Forest Universities.

A number of newer, more ideological board members with little or no higher education board experience and have butted heads with Bissette and Spelling over the last year.

The board now includes five former GOP state legislators.

Among the newer and more nakedly ideological members are Tom Fetzer and Bob Rucho.

Fetzer – an influential lobbyist from Wilmington, former mayor of Raleigh and past chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party – left little doubt about how he intended to conduct himself on the board during a speech during a contentious September 7th meeting.

He quoted conservative icon Margaret Thatcher, the combative former British Prime Minister, in her dismissive characterization of the very idea of political consensus.

“‘The process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes but to which no one objects’,” Fetzer quoted from Thatcher’s definition.  “‘The process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.’”

Fetzer rallied 15 board members to sign a strongly worded letter criticize Spelling and Bissette around their handling of the Silent Sam controversy over the summer – and, more generally, how board business is conducted altogether. Several of those who signed the letter went on to say it was more strongly worded than they would have liked and unfairly criticized Bissette, but that they signed it because they too were frustrated.

Rucho, a Republican from Matthews, served for 17 years in the legislature, where he held key leadership roles. He was an architect of redistricting plans struck down as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. Rucho was also one of the most conservative and combative of GOP legislators. His behavior in the legislature sometimes even led to conflicts with his own party, as when he once tweeted that the Affordable Care Act and the Supreme Court’s decision upholding it did “more damage to the USA then the swords of the Nazis, Soviets & terrorists combined.” Rucho refused to apologize for the comments, even when asked to do so by the chairman of the state GOP, calling his critics “the socialist elite.”

Bissette has struggled to keep the board on-track and united this year, most recently stepping in to cast a vote to prevent the full board from considering hiring its own staff, a move Spelling said would further usurp her authority.

The EdTalks column may be his most direct, public acknowledgement of the ongoing conflicts and ideological crusades on the board, which some board members have dismissed as overblown by the media.

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