The Daily Tar Heel
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The Daily Tar Heel

There was a telling disparity between how the UNC-system General Administration and its governing board responded to Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget cut to the university system.

UNC-system President Thomas Ross issued a strong statement March 20 that sounded the alarm about less funding for public higher education.

“I am very concerned by the magnitude of the new cuts proposed for our campuses, particularly in light of the more than $400 million in permanent budget reductions we absorbed two years ago,” Ross said.

When The (Raleigh) News & Observer asked to interview UNC-system Board of Governors Chairman Peter Hans about budget cut ramifications, he declined to comment.

President Ross and the board have managed (so far) to avoid airing any serious differences of opinion publicly. But the tension is there, and the mantra that the board is an apolitical and nonpartisan body is getting old.

In August 2011 the conservative Pope Center for Higher Education Policy went as far as proposing the board should bypass Ross entirely and hire its own executive director to “assert its independence from the system’s General Administration.”

Ross fits the state’s history of Democratic business-progressives who understand investment in the UNC system as a critical component of North Carolina’s economic future.

Since 2011, the Republican-led N.C. General Assembly has appointed all of the 32 current board members. Most of them are prominent conservative business leaders inclined to share the new legislature’s ideological skepticism about public higher education.

N.C. Senate Appropriations Committee co-chairman Peter Brunstetter, R-Forsyth, recently declared that GOP legislators could envision closing down UNC-system campuses — even though there’s no evidence that shuttering campuses is viable or even fiscally prudent.

By law until 2001 and by tradition until 2009, Democrats appointed a handful of Republicans (and women and minorities) when they controlled the legislature. Now, the board is overwhelmingly old, white, male and conservative.

John Sanders, a former board member and longtime director of UNC-CH’s School of Government, has observed that shutting out Democrats implies that “the new Republican legislative majority wants to ensure that their political views are reflected in the board’s decisions and actions.”

There are glimmers of hope. The threat of shutting down UNC campuses was extreme enough to prompt negative responses from some Republican board members. Public higher education is supposed to be about enlightened progress — not filling jobs or getting a return on investment.

But board members are certain to face pressure to cooperate with Republicans in the legislature. They will have to decide what matters more: protecting the university system’s mission and its constituent campuses, or making decisions that appeal to the political party that appointed them to the board.

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