Currently, the University of North Carolina — comprised of 16 universities and one residential high school — serves over 220,000 students. Our state constitution specifically states that “the General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.” While many families would dispute the “free of expense” description, and, though recent actions by the General Assembly may contradict this requirement even more, our state still invests an unprecedented amount of money in its public higher education.
As a member of the most recent class of graduates, I have experienced the changes firsthand — good and bad — in our university system over the past four years. Some would argue that public higher education in our state has been politicized as a result of the tenure of Gov. Pat McCrory and a rather conservative General Assembly.
The reality is that politics will always be tied to our public higher education. Each year, the governor and members of the General Assembly collaborate on a budget that includes allocations to (and cuts from) UNC system institutions. The General Assembly also appoints members of the Board of Governors, which is the policy-making body charged with the general determination, control, supervision, management and governance of all affairs of the institutions within the UNC system.
Most recently, the Board of Governors received a lot of attention because of the resignation of UNC System President Tom Ross. Ross was popular with students and respected as a fair and experienced leader, and students, faculty and staff were very confused by his sudden resignation. Board of Governors Chairman John Fennebresque offered very little information, and it became clear to many that Ross was not resigning voluntarily. In my university classes, many of my peers and professors talked about the political undercurrents of the announcement. And so began the search for someone who was deemed a better fit.
This brought us to May 26, when UNC Asheville hosted the first of four regional forums meant to allow students, alumni, faculty, community members and anyone else to express the qualities and characteristics they believe are crucial for the next UNC president. The Board of Governors made it clear they want as much input as possible as they begin the search.
At first, I was impressed by the online survey, as well as the avenues to participate via Twitter (#UNCSearch), text (919-590-3630) and e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org). I liked that all of the forums would be live streamed so people at home could watch. But as the evening unfolded and I looked around the room, I noticed a glaring absence of students. I saw one UNC alumnus and two UNC Asheville alumni (myself and one of my peers), all of us from the class of 2015 — and that was it. And I became very frustrated as I realized that all of the forums would occur when classes across the state would be out of session. Even though students and faculty can use the other means of communicating their opinions, I feel the timing of the forums is a massive oversight.
Though the moderators of the forum stated that all ideas were welcome, they also made it clear that “this was not a question and answer for the Board of Governors.” The forum was short — only 30 minutes. Nevertheless, though few in number, the comments made by the speakers reflected many of the themes often referenced when discussing North Carolina higher education. The first speaker encouraged the search committee to minimize partisan politics. Many speakers mentioned that they would like the next UNC president to have roots in North Carolina and experience in public higher education, a sentiment with which I agree. Economics and affordability were also mentioned, in addition to the ability to stand up to the North Carolina General Assembly. Someone made an excellent point that the next president must respect the regional importance of universities like Elizabeth City State University and UNC Pembroke because they not only serve the regions’ students, but also act as the largest employers for their respective regions.
I chose to speak regarding the absence of students. I said that one of my favorite aspects of the UNC Asheville chancellor search this past year was the ability of student leaders to meet candidates and take a tour of campus with them. We were then allowed to submit our comments regarding the candidates to the search committee, which I know were definitely taken into consideration. I feel that because of this inclusion of students, my alma mater was able to offer the position to the best person for the job. I advised that the same consideration of student input must be a part of the search for president; if the next president can’t first and foremost be an advocate for students, then what is the point?
A notable comment came from a recent UNC graduate, who said he would like members of the Board of Governors to share their opinion of what Ross lacks and, in turn, what they feel the next president should be like so that we can more easily understand their perspective. After he made this comment, I realized that many of the characteristics the evening’s speakers spoke in favor of were ones already exhibited by Ross.
In the end, I respect the Board of Governors’ efforts. I worry about the future of the university system, and I am concerned that we do not fully appreciate what an important role it plays in our state’s well-being. I plan to stay involved in the search for the next president as much as possible, both as an alumna and as someone invested in the future of public institutions of higher learning in North Carolina.
Juliana Grassia graduated from UNC Asheville this year. She served as the 2014-15 student body vice president, as well as a 2014 Marian Drane Graham Scholar at UNC General Administration in Chapel Hill.