By Hugh McColl
States need certain ingredients to be great. They need globally competitive industries like biotech, international financial centers like Charlotte, and an arts and entertainment community that gives families a reason to stay.
But the most important ingredient is a world-class education system. In North Carolina, that educational excellence has always been led by our university system.
North Carolina has come a long way in my lifetime. We have much more to do. As a society, we’ve left some people behind. A bold public university system is the linchpin to any strategy to fix that.
But as I’ve watched the UNC System over the last few years, I see a university adrift. Instead of empowered, strong leadership, I’ve seen infighting, confusion, and departures by respected education leaders. That has to change.
It’s time for state leaders to step in and improve a governance situation that’s become unsustainable. We need state leaders to refocus our universities and get them once again making the decisive, visionary actions we need.
That can happen if we just let our universities stick to the good strategies they’ve already created and stop dealing with the political crisis of the day. The core operations of our universities are strong. Our faculty are excellent. They need room to work.
That means politicians should be less involved in university affairs. Recently, legislators have become more involved in university operations and decisions. I understand why they might want to increase oversight of our universities but it’s clear to me that those efforts have backfired. Our universities need less political interference.
It also means Board members, primarily at the Board of Governors, need to interfere less in university operations. Board members are there to hire and fire a CEO. They are there to make and review overall policy. And they are there to work with the CEO on overarching mission so the enterprise is in agreement on the strategic direction.
That’s it. Everything else is not part of the Board’s job.
Great companies have boards of directors that know their role. When I was chair of NationsBank, I reviewed our acquisition strategy with the board on a regular basis. I got their feedback on every opportunity and as a result we were able to move forward when appropriate. They never tried to tell me how to do things; they evaluated ideas, provided appropriate guidance and counsel and then let me run with the ball. That’s what the Board of Governors for the UNC System should be doing.
The UNC System used to have that culture on its board. It can have it again. But it’s clear that that course correction will not happen on its own. Which is why it’s time for leaders from across the state to make clear that Board behavior must change and for the General Assembly to think hard about how it can improve the most important board it appoints.
If we don’t, we risk losing one of the ingredients our state needs to be great and tackle its challenges in the years to come.
Hugh McColl of Charlotte is the former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Bank of America. He is also the Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of Falfurrias Capital Partners.