By Mary Sue Coleman, PhD
President, Association of American Universities
As a proud alumna of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), I have watched with dismay as the UNC Board of Governors (BOG) has plunged one of the world’s most respected institutions of higher learning into a crisis. This is the institution that in recent years garnered two Nobel Prizes for its faculty, helped sequence the human genome, developed new models for human disease and new drugs to fight cancer. 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.
The mounting pressures on public higher education are taking a dangerous toll on our best institutions and their leaders in ways that call for concerted and thoughtful reevaluation of institutional oversight. The boards of these institutions have a responsibility to ensure that they are working to empower the institutions’ leadership, not undermine it. UNC is hardly an outlier but rather is the latest in a troubling trend of poor board governance. In the past decade AAU member institutions in Virginia, Texas, Oregon, and beyond have struggled to maintain their identity and mission, provide the highest quality education, manage internal conflict, and combat challenges to their institutional autonomy.
Public higher education is one of our national treasures, but the problems these institutions face are complex. Our universities are dealing with long-term declines in state support, with demands to do more with less money, and with appropriate calls for greater public accountability. They face real and valid concerns about cost and accessibility for lower income students. Perhaps the most troubling issue is the pressure of competing political and ideological forces that push research institutions and their leaders to focus on ever-narrowing career preparation. This approach is damaging to the education and research required of universities to serve society and deliver economic benefit of new discoveries. Universities are the platform from which new and unforeseen careers are invented.
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.
Establishing appropriate governance principles and practices is essential to this mission. Governing boards should counsel and empower leaders and ensure that they have the resources to execute their vision for the university.
The people of North Carolina would be well served by a BOG committed to “making things work” with UNC presidents and chancellors. 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.