Last month, the University of North Carolina System released the job description for its president position a vacancy left by the resignation of former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings last year — in an aspirational and lofty eight-page portrait.

Wanted: “transcendent leadership,” a “visionary” who could steer the state’s 16 public universities and nearly 240,000 students through political rapids that have threatened to erode the system’s illustrious academic reputation. 

In the posting, the presidential search committee devoted a single sentence to summing up the system’s myriad and long-standing difficulties: “The UNC System has experienced some very public challenges over the last few years including controversies regarding a controversial monument on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, public safety and communication concerns, and high-level personnel matters that received considerable media attention.”

Some of these are indicative of issues plaguing academe widely: battles over racist symbols on campuses (UNC-Chapel Hill’s Silent Sam statue, a monument to Confederate soldiers that has since been removed from the grounds) and new pressures cutting short the tenure of skilled career executives (the recent departures of Spellings and Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, along with other leaders in the system).

Pundits, though, blame the system’s partisan and rancorous governing board for many aspects of the high-profile scandals. Any candidate to lead UNC would need to navigate these headwinds, they say, and the most qualified leaders may even be deterred by them. 

One consideration is whether the board and a prospective president would be on “exactly the same page” and be able to come up with a set of goals to achieve over three to five years, Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education (ACE), said in an interview with Education Dive.

 “Any candidate worth having, who is seriously interested, will have a lot of questions about the politicization of the UNC board,” Hartle said. 

An unusual board structure

UNC’s board of governors is atypical because the North Carolina General Assembly selects all of its 24 members. A mix of gubernatorial and legislative appointments usually comprise state governing boards.

North Carolina’s setup allows the political party that dominates the legislature at the time to stock the board with its picks. Only after Republicans took control of the state government in 2010 did criticism that the board was politicized arise. Nearly a decade later, no self-identified Democrats sit on the board, when previously it was somewhat politically diverse. 

Caustic infighting spilled into the public five years ago when the board asked then-UNC President Tom Ross to leave the position. Observers lamented that Ross’ exodus was politically motivatedhe was previously the executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, which has backed progressive causes. No one on the board at the time gave a clear reason for pushing him out.

Spellings, his successor, seemed a more fitting choice for a GOP-ruled board, having served in the George W. Bush administration. But her hiring was met with backlash from students and others on the campuses due to her policies as Bush’s education secretary and her lack of an extensive higher ed background. She also entered the system at a tumultuous time, thrown into the skirmish over the now-repealed state law that forced citizens to use bathrooms in public facilities that matched the sex on their birth certificate. Following those and other controversies, Spellings ended her contract early. 

College leaders’ tenure has gradually diminished over the years. As of 2017, presidents served an average of 6.5 years, according to ACE’s latest American College President Study. In 2011, the average was 7 years, and five years before that it was 8.5. 

Administrators attribute the turnover nationwide to a wider and more taxing range of expectations for presidents. They must simultaneously serve as fundraisers, financial planners and campus figures, working out how to woo faculty, lawmakers and students and their families all at once.

This contributes to burnout, said Rod McDavis, who was the president of Ohio University for 13 years and now is managing principal of AGB Search, an affiliate of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges that helps institutions hire high-ranking executives.

Presidents once dealt with only the occasional crisis or controversy, but these are now commonplace, McDavis said in an interview with Education Dive. 

Even with added stress on administrators, the UNC System and its campuses have cycled through a remarkable number of top officials within a short time, often spurred by conflict with the board of governors. 

In statement emailed to Education Dive, Randy Ramsey, chair of the UNC board of governors, said the search committee “wanted to be upfront and transparent with potential candidates about the challenges and opportunities facing the next president.” He added that they have received applications from “many qualified candidates” and “will continue to encourage and seek out others to apply.”

 Folt abruptly announced last January she would step down, after she ordered the remnants of Silent Sam be removed from Chapel Hill’s campus. Protesters toppled the statute in 2018, but its base remained. The decision to fully remove the statue grated the board’s members, who said they weren’t consulted about the decision. Shortly after, they moved up Folt’s departure date from May of 2019, after students graduated, to the end of January. Two months later, she was named the president of the University of Southern California.

A former chancellor of East Carolina University, Cecil Staton, also resigned in 2019. After the system’s interim president, Bill Roper, contacted him to start negotiating his leave, board member Steven Long publicly aired the drama over Staton’s apparent ouster. Long alleged Staton had come under a “long-running campaign of false accusations and irrational attacks” by then-board chair, Harry Smith, who left the position.

Most recently, the system’s political dysfunction was made public after two members of the East Carolina board of trustees were accused of interfering in the student government election there. One member resigned, and the other was censured.

Why take the job?

With accusations abounding of micromanagement by the board, candidates might question: Why bother with the UNC president job at all? 

The answer: Despite its stumbles, UNC remains one of the country’s most distinguished systems, described by the search committee as a “crown jewel” of the state. The committee also hailed it as among the most affordable in the nation. 

A recent report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy declared UNC-Chapel Hill as one of only four flagship institutions in the country that is affordable for low-income students. The group constructed five fake profiles of students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and determined whether they would be able to attend state flagships. It highlighted Chapel Hill’s promise program, the Carolina Covenant, that helps impoverished students graduate without student loan debt.

The system’s overall graduation rate is growing, too. As of 2018, the five-year graduation rate was roughly 71%,  exceeding early a benchmark UNC had hoped to meet by 2022. As of fall 2016, a fixed tuition program approved by the state legislature guarantees all first-time, in-state students pursuing a bachelor’s degree that their cost of education will remain flat for up to eight consecutive semesters. The system reduced tuition for state residents to $500 a semester at three of its institutions, too.

“The UNC system was always out in front on a lot of different initiatives, even 20 years ago,” McDavis said, noting its student success efforts and private sector research collaborations. “I always kept an eye on opportunities there when I was a president, either at the provost … or chancellor level.”

He expects UNC will attract a bevy of strong candidates. 

Goals the search committee listed for the position aren’t particularly novel, and many are vague. Among them, strengthening the transition between K-12 schools and college and adding “outstanding academic and experiential learning opportunities.”

The eventual new president would need to work with the board to develop concrete objectives, said Alvin Schexnider, a senior consultant and senior fellow at AGB Consulting, which provides guidance to governing boards. He formerly led Winston-Salem State University, a historically black public institution in North Carolina.

The board needs to determine what it can accomplish in the next five years and recognize its flawed way of operating, he said. That includes listening to the chancellors who run the campuses and figuring out who can best work with them.

“If the board did something like that, it would send a signal to persons who would be interested that they’re taking serious stock of the very serious challenges it faces,” he said. “Otherwise it’s going to be a tough sell.”

UNC’s barriers are not insurmountable, Hartle said. Other systems have encountered a series of controversies or politicized leadership and righted themselves with a stable executive.

J.B. Milliken, former chancellor of the City University of New York, took the helm of the University of Texas System in 2018, bringing with him a reputation of deep political savvy and fundraising knowledge. 

His predecessor, William McRaven, had clashed with state officials. McRaven sought Gov. Greg Abbott’s support for the system developing a stretch of land in Houston, a planned $215 million deal. But Abbott was apparently bothered, having not learned about the project until just days before the UT System regents were due to vote on buying the parcel, the Houston Chronicle reported. He had doubts about it, which soured his relationship with McRaven. 

This fight followed the resignation of the president of the prestigious MD Anderson Cancer Center, part of the UT System, in March 2017, after the institution posted major financial losses. That same month, former UT San Antonio President Ricardo Romo left over sexual harassment allegations.

Milliken steadied the UT System’s leadership and smoothed relations with state lawmakers, Hartle said.

“Universities can go through problematic periods, and a first-class leader can fix things,” he said.

This article has been updated to include a statement from the UNC board of governors.

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