By Jim Martin
Even at its most refined, governance is messy. There’s no perfect process that can guarantee the right decision. The closest we can come is to make sure every voice is in the room arguing about what’s right.
Diversity of thought is a bedrock principle of this country. Nothing drives discontent more than feeling your voice is excluded from a conversation. When I came of age in a Democratic-controlled, one-party North Carolina, it’s what motivated me to enter politics. And as we successfully changed North Carolina into a vibrant two-party state, I learned the reverse; seeing your voice represented in that battle of ideas – in politics – is what gives you faith and trust in a system and an institution.
That’s why I’m concerned about one of our state’s crucial institutions: our public universities. Our universities are political battlefields. We can’t change that and we shouldn’t try. Trying to take the politics out of politics is always a bad idea. These are massive public institutions and they need political influence to channel the will of the people into their strategy and administration. No multi-billion-dollar public institution should be run solely by those who get paid by that institution.
But we’ve reached a point where the politics surrounding our universities have managed to make North Carolinians across the political spectrum believe they are excluded and ignored.
Conservatives have long believed, backed up by data, that they’re underrepresented in faculty leadership and to a lesser degree in university administration. You can argue whether universities are “hostile” towards conservatives, but it’s undeniable that university faculty – and faculty leadership – lean left. Conservatives have long understood higher education’s power in shaping societies so it’s no surprise they’re concerned these cultural and intellectual engines skew left.
But today, North Carolina progressives also look at our universities and their politically-appointed governance boards and believe – backed up by data — that these boards exclude their voices. Currently, no registered Democrat sits on the UNC System Board of Governors. That’s different than the past. Even when Democratic control of this state was absolute, registered Republicans were still appointed to university boards.
Both of these imbalances – political monopolies within Board leadership and faculty leadership – are urgent problems.
While Republicans control the state legislature, it’s proper for university boards to have a conservative majority. And with market and societal forces pushing conservative talent towards professions outside of academics, it appears inevitable that faculty leadership will skew progressive. Majority control, however, is different than majority hegemony. We must ensure there is an eloquent, empowered minority at both leadership levels.
Our universities deserve praise for how they’ve structured governance over the years, ensuring that chancellors, political board appointees, and faculty leadership all have important roles in leading the university. This diversity of professional perspectives improves decision making.
But a conservative governance board doesn’t balance out a progressive faculty. Such a set-up breeds conflict, not balance. We need diversity of thought at each level, not ideologically opposed governing bodies. The quickest correction can happen at the Board level. The majority party in Raleigh must appoint minority party members to our university boards. In fact, we should pass a new law requiring it. An ideal solution would include minority party appointments and at least some consensus appointments made jointly by the minority and majority parties.
Conservatives may argue that there’s no easy remedy for progressive domination of faculty leadership which means conservatives must fully control governance boards as a counter weight. I reject that. Conservatives cannot give up the academy! We can and must build better pipelines for young conservative talent into academia and empower conservative faculty to lead from within. Encouraging chancellors to elevate outstanding conservative faculty into leadership roles is a good place to start.
Both sides have carved out their own power base. Both believe at least part of the university excludes them, and so they cling to that power and exclude diverse thinking. Neither side should give up power. But both sides must allow for an eloquent minority that will challenge them on first principles, question the status quo, and ultimately lead to stronger decisions.
Empowering or building eloquent minorities within faculty and board leadership won’t overturn many decisions. The majority still rules in these bodies. But inclusive decision making improves public trust. A minority voice gives every North Carolinian faith that their views are being heard.
This is the people’s university and both progressives and conservatives should start acting like it.
James G. Martin served as Governor of North Carolina from 1985-93, following six terms in Congress. Martin began his career as an educator, earning a Ph.D. in chemistry from Princeton University and later teaching chemistry at his alma mater, Davidson College.
Martin Lancaster says
Great piece. Thanks!
George armstrong says
For the past 60 years diversity asks for tolerance to help level the playing field. In reality it has become stacking the deck and intolerant. UNC teaches to ignore the rule-if-law and be intolerant with conservatives. Look at how disgracefully they managed Silent Sam watching and allowing the destruction of public history for diversity sake.. Regan said in 1964 it was a war… Still is…
Ben Miller says
Very compelling and well written piece. I agree! But one thing puzzles me. Why argue for one side to diversify first? Why not argue to start with whatever openings are available? If there are not enough conservative applicants on academic side, then what special efforts are in place to recruit them? Has UNC relaxed the academic criteria for conservative professors? There is no shortage of potential board members of either political party. What’s the plan for academics?
Dr.Ron Plummer says
Well…..that is part of it. Although most boards are made up of people who are wealthy and have never understood the campuses and student needs. Also, what makes a person having an extra marshmallow an expert on governance and academia? And why do we always think that a person from out-of-state, who does not know or care about NC culture and needs, makes a good administrator of anything? Insulting to NC taxpayers. The best we have had at UNC System in my 77 years was Wm. Friday FROM NC! Read his book as required reading before appointing anyone to anything!
John Davis III says
Thank you for your non-partisan comments. You are so correct. Our University System, one of the top three in the nation, is in jeopardy. We must return to a politically balanced Board of Governors.
J A Miller says
It is easier to swing the pendulum of political appointees than conservative/progressive balance of faculty. One goes with the election cycles and follows the populace the other takes a generation if possible at all.
Craig Yencho says
Thank you Governor Martin for your service and thoughtful opinion. I’m a faculty member at NC State, which is probably one of the more “conservative “ UNC campus’s due to its agricultural and engineering roots. However, I honestly don’t think in terms of conservative and liberal biases and I’ve never experienced this in one of our job searches. We simply strive to bring in the best for the position while striving for diversity when possible while actively pursuing this goal. I really can’t recall letting a person’s political affiliation Influence our Dept’s decision in my 25+ years of service at this great institution.
Nancy S. Marks says
Thank you, Governor Martin ! Will we ever understand that a strong, independent, public school system (prekindergarten through university) is the best investment that this state can make for its future? Thank you for your service and your continuing common sense support.
Doug Copeland says
Thank you Jim Martin. Well thought out and well written.