By Lou Bissette
I am very proud of the UNC System. Our 17 institutions constitute the finest public university system in the nation. I have been fortunate to serve a combined 17 years, first on the Board of Western Carolina University and then on the UNC System Board of Governors.
Lately, we have seen a lot of headlines about how our universities are led, with a focus on the Board of Governors. Whether you think things are going well or going badly, we can all agree that our leadership quality helps dictate our university quality.
Simply put, we need the best governing boards possible. But I don’t think many of us have thought about what that looks like. You can’t get somewhere if you don’t know where you’re going.
So, what would a perfect board look like? I don’t have all the answers, but I believe it would focus on three things: diversity, independence, and trust.
First, a perfect Board of Governors is one that looks like North Carolina. This is a diverse state, but we don’t have a diverse Board. Of the Board’s 24 voting members, only two live west of the Charlotte area, only three are persons of color, and only five are women.
A governing board should reflect the interests of the people it represents. Geographically and demographically, it should look like our student body and the people of our state. That’s how we make sure all voices are heard and our policies are broadly supported and sustainable.
A perfect board would have more professional diversity. Speaking as a lawyer, a board only needs a few of us. It also needs educators. It needs CEOs and CFOs. It needs respected civic leaders and credentialed policy wonks.
Some corporate boards have experience targets that they use informally to build the right diversity of skills. That’s not a bad idea for a public board as well.
The biggest gap, however, between a board that looks like our state and the current board, is political. When I first started serving, Democrats and Republicans were just about equally represented on the Board of Governors. It functioned effectively. But today, the Board has no Democrats. That is simply not representative of our state and of the citizens we serve.
Second, a perfect Board of Governors is one that is independent, or as close to independent as a public body can be. Our universities should be held accountable, but governing boards do not exist to serve as oversight committees for the legislature.
The University System’s Board of Governors owes its fiduciary duty to the System. Its duty of loyalty is to the institution it represents, not the institution that appoints its members, the General Assembly.
Who appoints those members is also important. A perfect board would have its appointment power spread out as much as possible. In the past, the executive branch of our state government had a hand in appointing Board of Trustees members, and most folks agree it was a healthy way to be sure differing views were heard. No single entity should have total control over boards as important as these.
In addition, each member of the Board of Governors must be as independent as possible. They must be able to tell the General Assembly “no” when the University’s interests don’t totally align with the Legislature’s.
That means Board Members’ careers and professional interests shouldn’t be financially reliant on the General Assembly. If you are a lobbyist, or your business relies on state contracts, you’re probably not the best person for the Board of Governors.
No board can be fully independent. After all, the popularly elected General Assembly rightly controls the University System’s purse strings. But a perfect board should strive for as much independence as possible.
Third, a perfect board is focused on trust. The processes of the Board of Governors are pretty impressive on paper. Its committee structure delegates tasks, empowers professional staff and the President, and creates a deliberative, data-driven process for making decisions. Problems arise when a board loses trust in the process.
A perfect board trusts its processes and supports its president and institutional leaders. The people who have to implement the board’s policies need to buy into the process. When a Board trusts its process, it allows the university community to trust the process as well and work closely with its governing Board.
No board will ever be perfect. But the Board of Governors matters because the UNC System matters. Increasing the Board’s diversity, independence, and trust can go a long way towards keeping the UNC System the incredible asset for North Carolina that it must be.
W. Louis Bissette, Jr. is a lawyer in Asheville and a former Chair of the UNC Board of Governors. He has also served as Mayor of Asheville and a member of the Wake Forest University Board of Trustees.
Charlotte Miller says
Lou Bissette is most certainly correct in the need for diversity of all stripes. But I would go further in disqualifying anyone from a university board who has ties to the legislature, whether by contract or influence. Also, anyone who profits from the universities’ enterprise entities should also be disqualified.
Mary A Dickson says
BEst commentary and description of the current Board and how it can be strengthened and improved I have read! Louis Bissette’s recommendations are right on the mark and should be heeded by the current legislature!
Cissie Stevens says
Lou, I absolutely agree with your assessment of the Board of Governor’s membership. I would hope that the “powers that be” will listen to your wise counsel. Diversity and trust are equally important. Thank you for sharing your views.
Susan Green says
Clyde Ingle says
Who is responsible for the Governor having no power of appointment to the BoG? When did it happen? Looking at the present situation from experience in three other states, the absence of any balance of representation from the two parties is the principal cause of the present disaster.
Jennifer Lashua says
I am also very proud of our UNC system.
How does one get on a “board”?
I would love to partake in such!
Nancy S. Marks says
Thank you !! Oh, if only this could penetrate the minds and hearts of those who are supposed to represent the people.
Phillip Owens 1965 says
Louis, you may not remember me because it’s been a long time. We were in the little red school house onRay street together and graduated HPCH together in 1961. I agree completely with your comments and leadership. The political divide and bias is tearing our university and country apart. Thanks for your stand. What can I do to help?
Kimberly Thompson says
The points made by Mr. Bissette about the need for diversity on the UNC Bd. Of Governors strike perfectly at the core of truth that should cause concern for everyone. He addresses the major concerns I also have about the current composition of this board. The actions of this board are harmful to the effectiveness, strength and independence of our fine university system.
As a retired high school counselor, I know a bit., and care a lot, about the strength and reputation of our university system.
We have so much to be proud of and everyone, regardless of their political beliefs, should want the best opportunities for all students at each campus.
My concern is that a lot of North Carolinians who are not involved in education do not realize how the politicization of the Bd. Of Governors is hurting the future of the UNC system and the state. Mr. Bissette’s article includes so many good, truthful points that I wish there was some way it could be printed in every newspaper in NC., and to every member of the NC General Assembly.
I thank him for writing it, and encourage the editors of Higheredworks to distribute this article to as many outlets as possible so that more of the public may realize the need for alarm about the current political appointees on the UNC Bd. Of Governors. All who care about having a strong, healthy public education system, at all levels, should demand more diversity on the board member than currently exists.
I urge your organization to do all possible to disseminate these concerns of higher education to the public. Thanks for the great job you do providing really good information about what is happening on our university campuses.
Thomas E. Archie says
You are right on, Lou. You were a hard working fair member and head of the Board. We need more people like you on the Board that understand why they are there. Thank you for your service and your keen insight.
Randy Ferguson says
While I agree that having few representatives that live west of Charlotte and lack of sexual and race diversity is not ideal, I am not sure that lack of political diversity is a major issue. . After all the faculty and administration at Chapel Hill are NOT diverse politically as almost all are leftists. Perhaps having conservatives control the Board ensures some balance and oversight badly lacking in the administration and faculty that are completely controlled by Democrats, Socialists and other leftists. If we could get a much larger number of conservatives in those positions, I as a tax payer and a UNC CH graduate would be much more interested in seeing a more diverse political make up of the Board.
Dear Louis Bissette, Jr.
Your views on what would make a perfect board of Governors is quite reasonable. I have been a faculty at UNC Charlotte for 15 years now. I am an expert in optimization and artificial intelligence (AI). I also know a lot about educating students in an optimal way, which I call NI (natural intelligence). To be frank, we learn from mistakes, and education is not meant to be efficient. It needs to be messy and it is generally not a linear process. It takes energy and hard work (for both instructor and student) to allow students to overcome weaknesses and become stronger as mistakes are corrected through teachable moments.
I also know the importance of education, and the importance of having students pursue their interests with passion for knowledge (and skills). A college education is not for everyone, but for those that seek it should be given a fair opportunity to learn. I think in the last few years, and the last year in particular, the UNC system has made a grave error in making graduation rates the determining factor in funding its various campuses. This “no child left behind” mentality kills education, and has caused acute damage when it was applied to the public school systems across America from K-12. University Professors I know saw first hand in our freshman classes how the quality of education has diminished over the years by shifting focus from educating a student, with hard consequences, to pushing students through like little boxes on a conveyer belt because we cannot be troubled by their learning difficulties. Typical engineering students tell me they were advised not to take math and physics courses in high school because to get into engineering one needs a high GPA! This is opposite to what we need to do with young minds. Being exposed to the proper courses when a student is ready for them is part of building a successful career. Furthermore, under “no child left behind”, teachers become robots. I saw this first hand when some teachers said their hands were tied, and they could not give more challenging work to students that could handle it because the system forced them to concentrate on passing rates. My saying these days is that top students achieved their awesome abilities DESPITE the school system.
Most people would agree that Professors should try to reach students, and put them on a successful career path. But to put a percentage on how many students must pass to get funded or how fast a student must get through the system to get funded is a wrong approach based on ALL OPTIMIZATION PRINCIPLES! Moreover, this line of funding sets up an unfair playing field for students and institutions. Institutions that accept only the very top students can continue to graduate these students with fast graduation rates. Furthermore, the top institutions need not worry much about failure rates, because of the initial admittance screening (a failure rate that does not count against them). Our top flagship universities such as UNC Chapel Hill, and NC State have this luxury. UNC Charlotte on the other hand has always taken a chance on students with potential. But as everyone knows in economics and business, there are differences in payoffs when risk to reward is considered. Although taking more risk increases the overall failure rate, the successes can become much more than at the flagship institutions when potential is released within a student who has passion. Our students are generally not ready to be boxed up and placed on a conveyer belt to graduate after 120 units and 4 years later independent of major or any background about the student’s skills and interests! In general all students need time to explore and to learn and mature. Not only do most of our students have to work outside to live, they often come into the institution with a disadvantage in their prior education (especially thanks to no child left behind, and before that no child makes mistakes). We (the professors) work with these students and care about their success. In fact, I argue there is a success path for every student, but this does not mean we must pass students because our pay depends on it. It might even mean that some students need to find a career outside of a college education. Perhaps a trade school or technical school.
Well, not anymore. In all their wisdom, the board of trustees have intentionally created conflict of interest for all educators in the UNC system. As a reference, when there use to be troubled high schools with no “child left behind”, and they did not meet minimum passing rates, their funding was cut and a new principal was assigned that would ensure the pass rate would be increased so that funding would be restored! Something seems missing in that process. Namely, educating students! Everything comes down to creating the right incentives to achieve greatness. Students and faculty must have the right incentives for education to work. The UNC System is on the wrong track now, and sadly, its current funding mechanism was instituted after it was empirically evident what damage the “no child left behind” policies do to education.
There are many solutions to solve the education problems we see. I have many good solutions, and most people have good solutions if they simply use common sense from their own life experiences. Therefore, I cannot believe the board of trustees that rammed down recent decisions on “no child left behind” tactics could care less about educating our workforce. I lost trust in the board when this plan was made public a few years ago. I do not get heavily involved in politics, but my blood boils when I see students are getting the shaft due to political agendas. Some of my best students who want to take extra classes complain their tuition cost goes up to take extra units. Sad!
I am venting out my anger, because your article suggests you care about educating the public and you might still have access to ears that will listen to sanity.
James Anderson says
Lou Bissette’s comments address the Board of Governors as a functioning body. He is very insightful in his summary of the characteristics of an effective Board. In addition, the BoG is made up of individuals who possess their own perceptions of leadership.
Lou was a successful Chairman because he exhibited several characteristics that are necessary for effective leadership: Lou is trustworthy, moral, and courageous. He is also a good listener and thinker who does not allow personal biases to obfuscate his responsibilities.
I served as Chancellor of Fayetteville State University for 11 years (2008 – 2019) and my tenure overlapped with that of of four Chairpersons including Lou
Bissette. I was able to witness the leadership style of all four as managers of the UNC system. A great Board takes on the characteristics of its leader and vice versa.
I consider Lou to be colleague and friend. He would NEVER sign a secret agreement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and attach a huge payout. Lou would understand that such an arrangement is a slap in the face of people of color in NC. He also would not conjure up a bogus rationalization to justify such actions. Before any decision was made he would seek out feedback from the Chancellors, especially the 5 African Americans. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
It was an honor to work with Lou Bissette. I am a better leader and a better man because of our relationship.
Drew Taylor says
Great article ! What can we , the voting tax payers , do to bring more talented , diverse members to the board ? Keep up the good work Louie .
Ford Worthy says
Dear Mr. Bissette:
I want to compliment you, Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein, Hugh McColl and others on the insightful essays that have been published recently by Higher Ed Works. In particular, your argument regarding the need for greater diversity on the UNC Board of Governors resonates with North Carolinians like me who are deeply concerned about the state of higher education governance today.
I have been fortunate to have had two careers that have placed me in a position to closely observe the value of diversity for management teams. I was with Fortune Magazine for 13 years and regularly wrote about the management of large, complex institutions, and for the past 23 years I have worked in the venture capital business, where from an altogether different angle I have seen the value of having different experiences and viewpoints at the table. The value of diversity is beyond dispute. The very best ideas surface when highly qualified men and women – of different ethnicities, from different parts of the state, representing a range of professional experiences and political persuasions – are able to sit together and engage in open, respectful, vigorous debate.
You know this far better than I. And I applaud you and your colleagues for speaking out so forcefully about the need for diversity.
In reading this series of essays, I have been struck by the complete absence of any mention of the elephant among us: the broken process by which legislative districts are drawn every 10 years. Extreme partisan gerrymandering, I believe, is at the root of the UNC governing board’s dysfunction. A fairer redistricting process isn’t a silver bullet that will address all of the board’s present shortcomings, but it is a necessary step if the board is ever to regain its footing for effective long-term leadership. I feel certain that you and your colleagues share this judgment, yet you seem to have taken great pains to try to avoid addressing this issue head on.
At this moment, North Carolinians need your leadership on the need to reform our redistricting process. We need your leadership to bring about a less partisan, more transparent approach that eliminates the use of partisan data in drawing political boundaries. The product of such an approach, I believe, will be a legislature that better reflects the makeup of our state – a legislature comprised of politicians who are more accountable and thus more likely to find compromise where compromise can move us forward; in turn, those appointed by the legislature to the UNC Board of Governors are likely to be more representative of our state.
We need you to speak out publicly, not just about the need for a more diverse and less political governing board for our great University system, but in support of the need to address the underlying causes of the system’s current challenges.
Finally, thank you for your past service on the UNC Board and for your ongoing advocacy for higher education in North Carolina.
I would appreciate your forwarding this email to the executive director of Higher Ed Works.
Joel Adams says
Lou, Thank you for sharing your insight and your wisdom. Your life of public service has been an inspiration to me.