SMITH: Let’s support UNC leaders instead of playing politics


It’s been incredibly unfortunate that some of the press continue to focus on sensationalism versus taking the time to get the facts on how well the system is performing under the direction and guidance of the current Board of Governors.

The current board has taken on issues that have plagued the UNC System and other systems for generations. For the first time, a true focus on the performance of our institutions on multiple fronts is underway and solutions driven by good policies are being developed to ensure the long-term sustainable future for public higher education in North Carolina.

The UNC System is performing at higher standards than ever on key fronts such as retention and graduation rates, acceptance rates, financial performance, and quality of students. During a time when national headlines talk of declining enrollment concerns, the UNC System continues to meet and beat enrollment targets at our institutions that, in return, produce the educated workers needed to continue to drive North Carolina ahead of states that compete with us for new jobs.

There are also ill-informed members of the press who are working to create political divisions by creating a false narrative that the UNC System is struggling to recruit new leaders. It is just the opposite. During each of the UNC System’s recent chancellor searches, the candidate pools have been the strongest in the history of the system. I often asked candidates “why” the UNC System. Their responses were overwhelming that the UNC System was working to solve some of the systematic problems within higher education. Leaders recognize that for higher education to remain sustainable there must be change.

Trillions of dollars in student debt and continued increases in student costs simply do not work and if not addressed will make higher education unaffordable and unsustainable. The Board of Governors and system leadership can, for the first time in history, benchmark the true performance of our institutions and look at historical performance as well as how the institutions are performing against other schools in the system. It’s no longer a guessing game — it’s a focus on true and actual performance that can help identify schools that are excelling, schools that have challenges and schools that are failing. This management framework allows the leaders to get out front and be proactive.

I’m still perplexed that the UNC System allowed Elizabeth City State University to go bankrupt, sat by as almost 80 buildings on UNC campuses were boarded up, and allowed a $5 billion repair and renovation backlog to develop with no plan to address it. The system had no succession planning and allowed appointments to boards of trustees who had minimal skill sets and weren’t properly vetted.

Where was the press that constantly attacks when these issues were created under prior leadership? These are the challenges that the current Board of Governors is now addressing. The current Board of Governors has taken on these issues and many more head-on and should be applauded by the taxpayers and the citizens of North Carolina for their willingness to do so. The facts are the Board of Governors has moved the UNC System forward as never before with a focus on performance and accountability.

Social issues like Silent Sam are unfortunate and have taken away valuable time and resources from the leadership goals of the Board of Governors. Silent Sam was a significant campus issue for UNC Chapel Hill both financially and regarding safety. There was not a perfect solution to the problem posed by the Silent Sam controversy. Some of the press quickly demonized board leaders and committee members, and it’s the same lunatic fringe every time that is intent on harming the UNC System themselves for political gain or their own agendas. Lots of options were explored and, in the end, a decision was made — it wasn’t perfect, but let’s see how the decision evolves and judge then. UNC Chapel Hill can now move forward without significant recurring annual cost and safety concerns for students, faculty and staff. I know each member of the committee that worked on the Silent Sam issue, and I’m thankful they worked to get to a solution and moved the UNC System and the Chapel Hill campus forward by doing so.

The board is currently working on the next presidential hire. I hope that person is a leader who can trim bureaucracy and limit politics to focus on true performance. That leader should be willing to work with the board instead of against it to address real-world challenges. We also need a leader who can accomplish the changes necessary to keep the UNC System sustainable and affordable. A humble public servant who is in touch with our great state and its people can be a leader that can recruit talent and not play the politics of old by hiring for political favor.

The current Board of Governors is comprised of diverse members that each bring unique skills and talents to the UNC System. It takes an enormous amount of time and energy to serve on this board, and the state and the system are incredibly fortunate to have the current membership. Let’s get behind them and help them continue to do great things.

Harry Smith is an investor and developer in Greenville, North Carolina, and the former chairman of the UNC Board of Governors.