Before becoming UNC-system president, Erskine Bowles came to one of his predecessors for guidance.
And the first man to lead the state’s higher education system wanted to make sure that Bowles had his heart in the right place.
“I said to him, ‘Erskine, this is the biggest job in the state of North Carolina. … It’s a totally consuming commitment. Are you ready to do that?’” Bill Friday, who served as system president from 1956 to 1986, recalled asking Bowles.
“There was no need for persuasion here. This was what he wanted to do for the rest of his public life. More than anything else, this was the hallmark of his career.”
Bowles, who took office in 2006, announced in February that he will step down by the end of 2010.
The announcement wasn’t a surprise. Bowles will turn 65 in August, the customary age to step down. He also always indicated he wouldn’t stay longer than five years.
Bowles will most likely be known for two aspects of his presidency — redefining the system’s interaction with the state and handling the worst recession in decades.
He entered office calling for the UNC system to better address the needs of the state, which evolved into UNC Tomorrow. The initiative was the central focus of the system for his first couple of years.
But the drastic economic downturn in fall 2008 has overshadowed UNC Tomorrow and put some of its projects on the back burner.
Praise of Bowles has lately focused more on his crisis management skills. He managed to cut almost $300 million from the UNC-system budget last year while keeping the impact on students and academics slight.
He came in with extensive national experience — most prominently, he was former President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff — but serving as system president has been the peak of his public service career, Bowles has said.
The making of a UNC leader
Bowles was a clear frontrunner in the search for a president because of his financial acumen, enthusiasm for the state and UNC system, and his national stature, said Brad Wilson, who led the search committee and was Board of Governors chairman when Bowles took office.
Bowles came from the worlds of business and government, unlike his predecessor Molly Broad, who spent her professional life in academia and academic administration.
“It shook us up,” said current board chairwoman Hannah Gage.
“Institutions of higher education need that periodically. He had a new way of looking at everything. He saw opportunities that we may have missed and he saw areas of weakness that we were too close to see.”
Bowles came in at a time when the goals of the UNC system were changing. Broad oversaw a period of rapid enrollment growth.
But by the time Bowles took office, the board was already thinking about refocusing its attention on improving its operations and services, not just expanding its reach. The system had been growing so rapidly that the board hadn’t evaluated the system’s position in a while.
“OK, let’s get our house in order. Let’s tap on the brake and focus on how we’re operating,” Gage said, describing the board’s mindset in 2006.
“It had been awhile since we had time to focus on how we were operating. He had all the experience and skill set to do those things.”
Learning to slow down
Bowles openly acknowledges that he works more quickly than people like. He attributes it to his background in business.
He worked for Morgan Stanley & Co. for several years and afterward founded an investment banking company based in Charlotte.
That rapid decision-making process didn’t always mesh with the more plodding pace of the academic world.
Although the UNC-system administration, led by Bowles, implements policy, it is the Board of Governors that creates policies. The board also has to approve many of Bowles’ decisions.
“You have the glacial speed of higher education that collided initially with a CEO style. We had a few train wrecks in the beginning,” Gage said. “He would get out a little bit too far in front of us. Occasionally we’d have to say, ‘We’re not behind that’.”
In 2008, Bowles decided to recommend a 6.5 percent tuition increase without first getting the board’s support.
The board thought the proposal needed to be much more modest, and Bowles had to backtrack and present a lesser increase. The situation was a good lesson for both parties, Gage said.
“We had to adapt to his take-charge leadership style, and he had to learn that he couldn’t stake himself out on important issues without taking our temperature first. He had to run a little slower, and we had to learn to run faster.”
It took time for Bowles to learn how to balance the interests of the faculty, campus administrations, legislators and taxpayers, said Jim Phillips, chairman of the board from 2006 to 2008.
“There are a lot of bases that need to be touched, a lot of people that need to be consulted with. You have to operate under the rule of ‘no surprises’ to a much greater degree,” Wilson said.
Bowles’ pace and work schedule are unusually rigorous, he said.
“Erskine is almost a seven days a week, 18 hours a day leader,” he said. “President Broad’s pace was brisk and energetic and she had great work ethic. Erskine’s is almost at a frenetic pace and intense.”
A pace like Bowles’ isn’t one that can be sustained long-term without wearing people down, Wilson said.
But it’s been a dynamic — and crucial — force the past few years.
Reaching out to the state
Bowles was championing the mission behind UNC Tomorrow — leveraging the university system’s resources to address North Carolina’s needs — from day one of his presidency.
He spent much of his inaugural speech articulating his vision and embarked on a tour through North Carolina in his first year to understand what he needed to address.
The listening tour, as it was dubbed, was a transformative event in his presidency.
Bowles crisscrossed the state and held town-hall style forums everywhere he went. He would take notes the entire time and at the end would stand up and summarize for the audience what he was taking away from the forum, said Mike Smith, dean of the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill and formerly in charge of UNC Tomorrow initiatives at UNC-CH.
“It really raised the profile of the role of the university in the life of the state,” Smith said.
“He was communicating to those people that he is the president of the UNC system, but he paid attention. He’s heard what you said, and he’s going to do something about it.”
His interest in refocusing the UNC system’s mission coincided with a similar shift among board members, Gage said.
A commission was created to analyze the information gathered on the tour and come up with plans for addressing the issues raised.
The report identified five focus areas: improving K-12 education, becoming more competitive in a global economy, increasing access to higher education, aiding the state’s economic transformation and improving access to and quality of health care.
“It’s really more about making sure the needs of the people of the state are front and center in every decision,” Phillips said.
The number of programs on the 17 campuses that address those broad goals is exhaustive.
Most recently, system administrators and faculty presented a report on how N.C. teachers are trained. The report will be used to reform curricula in schools of education and produce better K-12 teachers.
UNC Tomorrow has had almost across-the-board support, but some are concerned that such an outward focus has limited the resources being devoted to UNC-system students.
“There’s an implication that the university needs to expand into every part of the state, and I don’t think that’s right,” said Jane Shaw, president of the conservative Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.
“The president should be concerned with the students reaching graduation and the costs.”
Using axes and scalpels
The recession drastically changed the trajectory of Bowles’ presidency.
Progress on UNC Tomorrow goals, which initially occurred at a fast clip, has slowed considerably — most recently, plans to expand medical school enrollment have been put on hold.
And although he said he came into office with the intention of making the system more efficient and cutting costs, doing so has now become imperative.
Last year the UNC system had to cut almost $300 million from its budget. That translated to 935 jobs, almost 900 of those in the administrative sector.
An additional $52 million will be cut this year, possibly more.
“He brought a vitality that’s needed now. We’re dealing with massive numbers. We’re dealing with deficit situations. We’re dealing with global complications,” Friday said.
Had Bowles not implemented efficiency measures and started cutting costs when he entered office, the system would be far worse off now, Gage said.
“We began real, substantive change that I think will contribute to our system being stronger 25 years from now,” Gage said. “We started making changes before we had to, and I think that saved us.”
Bowles launched the President’s Advisory Committee on Efficiency and Effectiveness soon after taking office to examine ways to trim spending.
“All of it was, ‘How do we find a model of operating that this state can afford for a long, long time?’ We had created something that was going to become unsustainable,” Gage said.
Prioritizing, careful cuts, communication with the legislature and bold action have led to minimal impact on students and academics so far, system leaders claim.
“He’s a great crisis manager. I think it brings out his best skills,” Wilson said. “He’s almost at his best when dealing with urgent and important circumstances.”
One of the most noticeable achievements of Bowles’ presidency is the unification of the campuses and chancellors, said N.C. Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, chairman of the education committee.
Chancellors used to come to the legislature to lobby individually, turning it into a competition for the state’s resources.
“Getting those chancellors to work together as a team and not be competitive with each other … is a big part of getting this group to work together as a team,” Bowles said. “I think we’re more powerful as one than we are as 17.”
He had the opportunity to select chancellors at more than half of the UNC-system schools, which allowed him to further influence operations on campuses and ensure that he was working with people with a similar vision.
This was particularly crucial with the historically black colleges and universities of the state. Bowles wanted these schools to measure themselves against the broader university pool, not just other HBCUs.
He appointed chancellors at all five schools who wanted the same thing, Bowles said.
Earning the trust of the legislature has been crucial, particularly during times of limited resources when legislators are deciding who will get funding and who will not.
“If you don’t get credibility with the legislature, you’ll never get additional resources,” Bowles said.
“I worked really hard to earn their trust over there, to make sure that we were completely transparent.”
His candor about two prominent issues of mismanagement reinforced the legislators’ trust in Bowles, Stevens said.
One was the discovery of an unauthorized satellite campus of N.C. Central University in Georgia in 2008.
The other was the disclosure of a disproportionately large salary being awarded to Mary Easley, the wife of former N.C. Gov. Mike Easley and a former lecturer at N.C. State University, in 2009.
The chancellor and provost at NCSU ended up resigning during the scandal.
“Many of (the legislators) have become fans of his. That takes extraordinary talent, to be able to do that,” Stevens said.
Turning over the wheel
The time has come for a new leader with a fresh perspective and new ideas, Bowles said.
“You’ve got to change. When you don’t change, you’ll never get there,” he said.
But the system will evolve, regardless of who is at the helm, Friday said.
“Universities go on, president or no president. They have their own momentum. They have their own drive,” Friday said.
“If you’re foresighted enough to get someone in that office who can give it a push, give it energy, then you’re lucky. And that’s what we’ve been.”
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