|In North Carolina, the relationship between the flagship public university and the state seems to be broken and getting worse. And that’s despite the good intentions of the chancellor, the chair of the faculty, and the leader of the Board of Trustees.|
Trust is at the foundation of any healthy relationship, whether it’s a marriage, a business partnership, or a sprawling university. Partners must share a vision and trust one another to carry it out. Jonathan Cole, the former provost at Columbia, describes the relationship between a university and the government as “an uneasy compact,” sustained by tacit agreements and mutual understanding. “When trust breaks down, the other values and all that is built on them are in peril.”
In Our Higher Calling, the book I wrote with UNC’s former Chancellor Holden Thorp, we summarized Cole’s concept as a partnership with the public. In exchange for educating a highly competitive workforce and leading the discovery of new knowledge, academic communities will be funded and allowed to run as a meritocracy, with the freedom to both explore and occasionally espouse unpopular ideas. Recognizing that education and discovery are messy enterprises, universities get a freer hand than just about any public entity to run their own affairs. When the trust level is high, this tradeoff works well for both sides. When the trust level is low, it becomes a recipe for disaster.
I’ve witnessed that disturbing spiral at Carolina. I teach a class on higher education with the current chancellor, and I’m well acquainted with many former and current trustees, some of whom were college classmates. I’ve also been a member of the faculty for seventeen years. The recent controversy over the failed hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones in the School of Journalism and Media brought worldwide attention to the dysfunction that’s been building for at least a decade between the University and its governing bodies. Both internal and external forces have contributed to the erosion of trust, threatening a partnership that has benefitted North Carolina since 1789.
The internal forces begin with the partners themselves. Faculty, for the most part, do not recognize that academic freedom and shared governance come at a price. Students and their parents expect job-ready graduates who are also equipped to be thoughtful and productive citizens. They expect research that drives the economy and supports a better quality of life for citizens of the state and beyond.
At the same time, trustees are skeptical about the ability of academics — most of whom have little training in business, finance, or politics — to run an institution as massive and complex as a modern research university. There aren’t many multi-billion-dollar enterprises run on consensus-oriented shared governance models, and many trustees would like to see a more top-down approach that prioritizes action over a discussion. One trustee, when asked how long it takes to understand the university’s decision-making process, replied, “I hope I live that long.”
For many years, an environment of relative trust was enough to reconcile those different worldviews. So long as Carolina continued to win basketball games and turn out loyal graduates, there wasn’t much soul-searching about its relationship to the life of the state. Battles were fought over the budget, with trustees asserting an increasing interest in governance in the interest of maintaining state funding. When cultural issues such as the removal of a Confederate statue from campus entered the debate, public trust declined, and the University faced greater scrutiny from lawmakers and governing officials. At the same time, these same hot-button issues galvanized large segments of the faculty who had previously paid little attention to governance structures outside their own department or field. Faculty outspokenness led to deepening frustration among trustees, who saw high-profile stands on political issues causing unnecessary friction with legislators and donors.
Chancellors, like institutional leaders across our society, have been caught in the middle, trying to forge compromises that satisfy almost no one. Trustees think the chancellor should be tougher on the faculty, forgetting that the chancellor is a member of the faculty. And fellow academics think the chancellor should stand up to the powers that be, forgetting that chancellors are selected and removed by governing boards. It’s not surprising, then, that turnover in these roles is on the rise across the country. Carolina has had three Chancellors in the last decade.
External factors also play a role. Public support for all institutions has been eroding for decades, a process accelerated by a relentless media culture. Critics are asking whether a college degree is worth it amid a long-term rise in tuition and student debt. (It should be noted that tuition at UNC has remained flat for the last five years.) Calls for greater efficiency and reform come from parents, as well as lawmakers. And even more fundamentally, conservative politicians believe colleges and universities lack viewpoint diversity and turn pliable young people into eager liberals.
The ongoing racial reckoning in America and the controversy over critical race theory have added considerable fuel to the fire. And a significant portion of the faculty now question some of the foundational academic principles that underpin the partnership with the public, rejecting ideals like meritocracy and even elements of free speech as harmful to marginalized members of the community.
Social media and open meeting laws also contribute to an environment where ideas and policies are litigated on screens, not around a conference table. After a recent off-the-record seminar on university governance, a faculty leader said it was a relief to have an honest conversation about difficult issues without worrying she would say something clumsy or imprecise that could be vilified by her critics or lead to litigation. She noted that public meetings are now highly scripted affairs, offering little opportunity for genuine engagement between faculty and trustees.
All of this has the makings of a genuine if slow-moving crisis. But, perhaps naively, I think there are steps that can restore at least some of the trust that is essential to effective shared governance. The parties need to be willing to pick up the phone, meet for lunch and otherwise talk instead of lobbing public statements at one another. Trust is built person-to-person, not Tweet-to-retweet. Trustees should be encouraged to spend time visiting classes and research labs to see the work firsthand, not just hear about it in carefully curated presentations. Faculty need to break bread with trustees and other citizens of the state. Administrators must be transparent and uphold the foundational principles of the university even when their advisors, especially their lawyers, counsel otherwise.
The partnership itself needs to be made more explicit with clear, definable expectations for all parties. A current effort by the Board of Trustees to clarify decision-making authority will, at the very least, focus the conversation and perhaps avoid the kind of micro-managing that handcuffs multi-billion-dollar enterprises. Focusing the conversation on actual performance, instead of the front-page issue of the day, would be great for all involved. Because that’s the irony of this moment in university history — for all the angst and distrust, Carolina is performing its core roles remarkably well. Record enrollment, record research funding, a fundraising campaign that stayed on track even through the whipsaw economy of Covid. On the fundamentals, UNC has rarely been stronger.
That won’t continue if the rift between the campus and the state grows ever wider. The University’s situation must not be sugar-coated. It is serious, and events have converged to place a spotlight on how leadership responds. Any effective way forward has to begin with honesty about where we are now, and that’s a very bad spot.
Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash