UNC has management problems, but Republicans are to blame


From an academic-athletic scandal, a Confederate monument controversy and the ongoing dispute regarding tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones, it’s pretty clear UNC-Chapel Hill has a governance problem.

Even state Senate leader Phil Berger thinks so.

After it was revealed last week that UNC’s chief fundraiser David Routh has a moonlighting gig at a Charlotte-based investment firm, Berger spoke up, saying UNC officials’ approval of the role is part of what he considers to be a pattern of poor management, the News & Observer reported Monday.

“It looks to me that we have a flagship that’s rudderless,” Berger said.

But if the ship is indeed rudderless, it’s by design — Berger and his colleagues have made it nearly impossible to sail.

Ask almost anyone familiar with higher education in North Carolina, and they’ll tell you that the UNC System is, in many ways, a de facto extension of the state legislature. All 24 voting members of the UNC Board of Governors, the governing body of the UNC System, are elected by the state House and Senate. At the campus level, eight members of the UNC Board of Trustees are elected by the Board of Governors, and four are appointed by the General Assembly.

What does that mean? Well, aside from the student body president, who serves as an ex-officio member of the Board of Trustees, every person who serves on the Board of Governors or the Board of Trustees is either directly or indirectly appointed by the Republican-dominated legislature.

The General Assembly’s hands are all over the UNC System — so who does Berger think is to blame?

UNC might have a governance problem, but it’s functioning exactly the way it was meant to. Higher education hasn’t been immune to Republican power grabs, and Berger has helped orchestrate them. In 2016, Republicans — in a surprise special session — passed a bill that eliminated the governor’s power to appoint members to the UNC Board of Trustees. (Berger has been president pro tempore of the Senate since Republicans gained control of the chamber in 2011.)

As a result, the demographic makeup of both bodies has grown to heavily resemble that of the legislature itself: overwhelmingly white, male and conservative. As long as Republicans have maintained a majority in the state legislature, those at the helm of higher education have upheld the values that Republican legislators, including Berger, espouse. Former GOP legislators, party leaders and conservative lobbyists have all held seats on the UNC Board of Governors or Board of Trustees. Many have donated significant sums of money to Republican political candidates and causes — some even to Berger himself.

In recent years, these leaders have waged a war of political interference across the UNC System, attempting to meddle in student government elections, chancellor searches and everything in between. As such, the policies and decisions set forth by the UNC System and its 16 campuses have largely been shaped by conservative politics; individual chancellors are often rendered powerless by campus trustees and system leaders with the power to hire and fire them.

Berger is right — there is a pattern of poor management at UNC. But much of that is self-inflicted. It’s due in no small part to its politicization, which has been ushered in by none other than Berger and his colleagues. When leaders are appointed based on ideology rather than qualifications, it shouldn’t be a surprise when things go awry.

What Berger failed to acknowledge is that he’s part of the problem, and it’s up to him to clean up the mess he played a role in creating. The bigger question is: will he?

Paige Masten is a 2021 University of North Carolina graduate and former editorial page editor of the Daily Tar Heel.