Editorial: UNC system board is case study in professional dysfunction

Posted September 8

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Louis Bissette and UNC President Margaret Spellings answer questions.

CBC Editorial: Friday, Sept. 8, 2017; Editorial # 8209
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company

To the 15 members of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors who signed the letter to their president and board chairman: Kelli Blue, Pearl Burris-Floyd, Philip Byers, Tom Fetzer, Thom Goolsby, Jim Holmes, Marty Kotis, Alex Mitchell, Wendy Murphy, David Powers, Randy Ramsey, Bob Rucho, Harry Smith, Bill Webb and Mike Williford -- we’re talking to you.

It was a startlingly unprofessional letter to President Margaret Spellings and UNC Board Chairman Louis Bissette that you had to know would become public. The letter along with Thursday’s pathetic board meeting was more reflective of a Marx Brothers farce than the studious behavior of leaders of one of the world’s foremost systems of higher education.

A position on the UNC Board of Governors carries great responsibility. It demands a regard for the norms of professional conduct. Far from professional, your action was straight out of the Amateur Hour.

Come on now! Writing a letter like that, when you had to know it would become public? Real pros have more respect for their leadership. YOU are the failures because it is YOUR job is to make them successful -- not to attack them.

Face up to it, your letter was nothing more than anger about Silent Sam and Spelling’s Washington Post op-ed in support of “dreamers” and opposing repeal of DACA. Your president and committee chairs from your board made an emergency decision. They followed policy and procedure. Your job is to support that decision.

Thursday’s performance was, plain and simple, dysfunction, chaos and bad political theater. The email exchange and conduct of the meeting were amateurish and wholly unacceptable.

North Carolina’s taxpayers, the hard-working faculty and, most importantly, the promising students at our public universities deserve better governance than the clown parade on display Thursday.

Are you happy to be seen publically criticizing your president and board chair? Is this just setting the stage for a repeat of the Tom Ross debacle? What planet are you on? There are professional ways to discuss disagreements about board policy and management decisions.

If the many fine business schools in the UNC system are looking for a case study of board dysfunction, they need to look no further than the latest performance of the board that governs them.

Below is the letter sent by Fetzer and 14 other UNC Board members to President Spellings and Board Chair Bissette. It is followed by the reply from Spellings and Bissette.

* * *

From: Tom Fetzer
Sent: Tuesday, August 22, 2017 6:45 PM
To: Lou Bissette; Margaret Spellings
Chairman Bissette
President Spelling

We have serious concerns about actions, and in some cases, inactions, on your part in the last 48 hours.

First, most, if not all of us, found out about the murder of a 5 year old in UNC-CH graduate student housing thru the media or other campus sources rather than either of you or UNC GA. When we did finally hear from you, far too many hours after the tragic event, it was an afterthought (3rd paragraph of a 3 paragraph letter that began "In addition") in a letter about another matter.

While this is wholly unacceptable, it is also wholly consistent with the manner in which many of us on the Board of Governors feel that we have been regarded when it comes to the dissemination of vital information.

Which leads into our second concern, that being the letter signed by both of you to Governor Cooper yesterday.

We have several concerns about the letter:

The letter was not vetted through the entire board. We understand that it was discussed on a call with committee chairs yesterday, but only in regards to notifying the Governor and requesting advice for enhanced security. Several committee chairs on the call have vouched that requesting the Historic Properties Commission to weigh in on the removal of the monument known as "Silent Sam" was not discussed. Which means that was a unilateral decision made on your part without sufficient Board knowledge or input.

That also is wholly unacceptable. A conference call of the full Board should have been arranged or, at minimum, a rough draft of the letter should have been sent to each of us for approval. Which you would not have received because we do not believe that letter was the right course of action to take to achieve the top priority of protecting our students and secondarily, our campuses and public property. As a matter of fact, we believe that it had the opposite effect.

The letter exuded a weakness and hand wringing that does not accurately reflect the Board's opinion about how the potential of campus unrest should be treated.

We would have preferred a strong statement from each of you to the Chancellors, with the expectation that the Chancellors, in turn, would communicate the message to their campuses, that while our campuses have long been a hospitable forum and meeting place for the peaceful dissemination of contrasting views, lawlessness, vandalism, and violence will not be tolerated and will be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

Compounding the error of exuding weakness rather than firm resolve, the letter to the Governor and his political manipulation of the situation by sending his response to the press first, has dramatically and dangerously escalated the potential for unrest and violence at the Chapel Hill campus and perhaps others as well.

Witness the front page headlines in Durham and Raleigh today as evidence of how your strategy to ameliorate this situation backfired.

All of which could have been avoided if you had sought our advice and counsel first--as we believe it is your duty to do.

Let us be clear, we expect you and the Chancellors to do everything in your power to protect our students, our campuses and public property from malicious mayhem. We stand ready to assist in those efforts.

These are our most grievous concerns. But we have others.

There are also reports of an ongoing financial crisis at Elizabeth City State University that some of us are hearing about only anecdotally, but taking very seriously. Again, there has been no formal, or even informal, communication from either or you to the full Board. It is incomprehensible to us, who have a fiduciary responsibility for the campuses as well as the system as a whole, that this apparent crisis could have existed without a briefing from UNC GA.

Your chosen method of communicating with committee chairs (appointed by the Chairman, not the Board) and leaving it to the discretion of those chairs to communicate important information to the remainder of the Board is not working and would not be acceptable even if it were. The full voice of the Board should and must be heard on issues of vital importance, such as these we have just enumerated.

In closing, we wish to make it clear that our expectation is to receive more and more timely information about issues of critical importance to the UNC system even if, as stated in President Spellings' last missive to us, that "it isn't practical to convene the full Board publicly to discuss them."

Respectfully yours,
Harry Smith; Jim Holmes; Marty Kotis; David Powers; Alex Mitchell; Philip Byers; Mike Williford; Thom Goolsby; Pearl Floyd; Wendy Murphy; Bob Rucho; Randy Ramsey; Kelli Blue; Tom Fetzer; Bill Webb

* * *

From: On Behalf Of Margaret Spellings
Sent: Wednesday, August 23, 2017 12:27 PM
To: Tom Fetzer
Cc: Current Board of Governors

Dear Colleagues:

Thank you for your letter and the opportunity to address the specific issues you raised.

Like you, we want what is best for the University and the State-the safety and security of our students, faculty, and staff; the stewardship of resources; and the protection of our historic institutions all in our care. Above all, we want to enable every North Carolinian access to a world-class educational experience in order to allow them to fulfill their dreams. As University leaders, we are entrusted with an important role in fulfilling these duties, and each of us strives to fulfill those duties every single day, often under trying conditions and with great urgency.

Such was the situation this past week. When we learned over the weekend of the growing threat to the UNC-Chapel Hill campus and community, specifically the Silent Sam statue, we convened the Board's seven committee chairs to discuss the situation. With a 28-member Board, it is essential that we use our formal committee processes and Board leaders to garner advice and counsel-and this was certainly such a time.

During the call, UNC-GA's Associate Vice President for Safety and Emergency Operations Brent Herron briefed us on the developing situation at Chapel Hill and read the attached letter from UNC-Chapel Hill's Chief of Police Jeff McCracken. We then consulted with UNC-GA's General Counsel Tom Shanahan to fully understand the applicable laws related to the statue. We then discussed sending a letter to Governor Cooper to inform him of what we knew with respect to upcoming protests and potential threats, and the options in keeping with the law. We believe the law does not empower the University to act.

With respect to Elizabeth City State University (ECSU), last year, we formed a working group shortly after the appointment of Chancellor Thomas Conway, to develop a plan to deal with their chronic and longstanding issues. The group was comprised of officials from the UNC System and ECSU, and included Governors Long and Smith. The group worked for several months and developed a plan to enhance the financial stability and academic strength of the institution. That work resulted in a legislative request that was adopted by the Board and supported by the General Assembly. Over the recent past, we have worked to enhance enrollment, and ECSU just welcomed its largest freshman class in five years. In addition, we continue to provide resources and support from throughout the System to take the necessary steps to address the management and financial challenges, and we are monitoring fall enrollment numbers daily; final census figures will be available soon. We have kept the working group and other Board leaders apprised of the situation-with regular updates during this critical period and look forward to discussing these issues at our upcoming meeting.

As for the death of the young child, great care must be taken in surfacing information related to an active investigation. It can be said now, that the child was murdered with a knife by his own mother following a domestic dispute with her husband. While events such as this are tragic, we encounter suicides, assaults, and many other crimes and tragedies in this large enterprise and we strive to keep the Board as informed as possible. Often, the media is alerted via social media or other means in real-time. Such was the case this past week with the outcry over Silent Sam and further developments in the sexual assault investigation at NC State.

We do recognize that there is dissatisfaction with the approach to information flow, and we plan to reserve time at the next Board meeting to discuss steps we can take to make improvements.

These are challenging times in American higher education. We have a growing, changing population of students and citizens to serve-some 230,000 students, and we manage and oversee a 10-billion-dollar enterprise-employing more than 50,000 faculty and staff.

Thank you for your service to the University and our State. Please reach out with any questions.

Chairman Lou Bissette
President Margaret Spellings


Please with your WRAL.com account to comment on this story. You also will need a Facebook account to comment.

Oldest First
View all