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President of Association of American Universities on her “dismay” with UNC Board of Governors

Dr. Mary Sue Coleman is president of the Association of American Universities – and a proud UNC alumna.

That’s why she felt compelled to weigh in with a column this week on her “dismay” at the atmosphere conflict and acrimony on the UNC Board of Governors that has driven away a number of prominent leaders in the last few years.

In the column for the Higher Education Works Foundation, Coleman lays out her credentials and her problems with the current board.

“The BOG has driven out three distinguished leaders in recent years: President Thomas Ross in 2016, President Margaret Spellings in 2018, and Chancellor Carol Folt in 2019. I have a vested interest, both personal and professional, in UNC. As a 1969 graduate with a doctorate in biochemistry, former president of two Big Ten universities, a veteran of governing boards of three colleges and universities, and current president of the Association of American Universities which represents America’s leading research universities, I am deeply concerned about how public universities like UNC are governed.”

Coleman then lays out what she sees as the heart of the problem.

“At the AAU, we understand and respect the authority of states to oversee and govern their public institutions. However, precipitous departures of respected academic leaders make it exceedingly difficult to attract and retain the quality of leaders that an institution such as UNC has long enjoyed on its many campuses and has a right to expect. The pattern of disorderly transition generated by the UNC BOG appears to be grounded in historical grievances. Focusing on such grievances impairs the balanced leadership expected from a university system that was once a superstar of American higher education.

It is more crucial than ever that governing boards and leaders in higher education work together to advance their core missions: educating citizens to be innovators, entrepreneurs, artists, teachers, doctors, scientists, and more; finding cures for diseases; fueling job growth; ensuring national security; and making our communities attractive places to work, live, and celebrate.

Universities are not complaisant places, nor should they be. They are the ground zero of democracy and by design are messy and often quarrelsome, especially when students and scholars generate new knowledge and pursue the truth. The public is often unnerved by open debate in universities when serious and contentious issues are confronted. Likewise, the public can be enraged when university researchers discover inconvenient truths. And yet ours are institutions that have delivered countless cures and discoveries, from vaccines and MRIs to the internet and smartphones. America’s research universities are the envy of the world.

It is the job of governing boards to understand that these universities invariably question what we think we know. Governing boards must not only protect but also promote an environment where we can challenge current knowledge. Because without intellectual challenge, there is no genuinely ‘higher’ education or human progress. Boards do not need to ‘resolve’ debate. Universities do so themselves by encouraging the competition of ideas even if resolution of debate may take years or decades.”

Coleman ends the column by entreating the board to “make it work” with their leadership.

The existing pattern of revolving door leadership only harms the institution and contributes to the undermining of public universities at a critical moment when institutional trust is needed. It is time for the University of North Carolina to lead again and be a model of good governance.

Read the whole piece here.

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