Board of Governors Ravaging Higher Education in North Carolina
Adding to a long list of recently departed high-level UNC system administrators, East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton announced his resignation last Monday. Staton is one of many to become engulfed by the changing tides of the UNC system in the past year: his resignation, of course, follows those of both former system President Margaret Spellings and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt. With this latest departure, however, North Carolinians received more than just another benign goodbye. The same day, Board of Governors member Steven Long released a statement following Staton’s announcement, which squarely blamed current BOG Chairman Harry Smith for Staton’s decision to leave. In his statement, Long asserts that Smith attempted to micromanage Staton’s job and had been working to remove him from his position ever since the two were involved in a rejected real estate deal in 2016. Long goes on to detail Smith’s behavior, alleging that he made false accusations against Staton and has spoken negatively of him frequently since 2016. It’s also suspected that Spellings, her predecessor Tom Ross, and even Folt were all pushed out of their positions as a result of similar behavior by Smith. Smith denies anyone forced out Stanton or anyone else, while Staton has stated that he did not initiate his resignation.
Smith, who has been on the Board of Governors since 2013, took over as chair in 2018. The behavior of which Smith has been accused in these three episodes are indicative of a greater attitude of the BOG and the North Carolina General Assembly which has been on prominent display in recent years. Both bodies have proven themselves to operate with open contempt against the higher education system in this state for personal and political reasons. Smith, who admitted to not knowing what the Board of Governors was before becoming a member and has no previous ties to education, was one of many conservative appointments added to the Board when Republicans took over the General Assembly in 2010. Since then, the Board has faced criticism for forcing out former system President Tom Ross over political reasons, attacked the UNC School of Law Center for Civil Rights, and found itself shockingly unable to make a decision about what should happen to UNC’s Confederate-era monument, much less the one which students and faculty have overwhelmingly called for. It has become clear now, if it was not already, that the Board of Governors is not serving with the students’ best interests in mind. Instead, this dysfunctional group is focused on advancing its political interests and apparently seeking retribution for personal vendettas.
While students at UNC have long known the damage that can be inflicted by this Board, other universities in the system are beginning to suffer as well. North Carolina boasts one of the country’s best higher education systems, but the Board of Governors is putting that at risk. By constantly clashing with university leaders over personal and political disagreements, the Board is risking its ability to find qualified leaders in the future, creating a chaotic environment for Carolina students, and jeopardizing the state’s ability to stay near the top when it comes to higher education. For the sake of North Carolina students, and the state as a whole, one of two things must happen in the near future. Either the current body must behave in a manner becoming of those controlling the heart and soul of our state’s higher education, or they must be replaced by new and more competent administrators until a group that can do so is assembled. It is shameful that the politics of our Board of Governors has descended into backroom deals and mid-meeting resignations — and it’s shaping up to cause irreparable damage to higher education in our state.