The Transylvania Times -

Turnover Is Harming UNC


November 14, 2019

For many decades, the University of North Carolina system was the gold standard in the Southeast. Students from other southeastern states would often apply and be willing to pay the out-of-state tuition to attend UNC-Chapel Hill or N.C. State.

Today, the reputation of the university system is not as stellar as it once was. That is not due to the quality of instruction nor the quality of students. It is due to the political interference by the UNC Board of Governors that has caused a staggering increase in turnover in the leadership positions.

The following changes have occurred in the last few years:

• Tom Ross, head of the entire 17-campus university system, was ousted in 2015.

• Margaret Spellings, former U.S. Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, replaced Ross. She resigned with two years left on her contract.

•Carol Folt, chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, resigned in January of this year. She later took the job as head of the University of Southern California.

• Cecil Staton, chancellor of East Carolina University, was forced to resign.

•Dan Gerlach, who replaced Staton, resigned after a video was released of him drinking in a bar with college students, and, apparently, staggering before getting into a car and driving off.

•At present, there are four universities in the system without a chancellor. The turnover will continue next year when Chancellor Phillip Dubois leaves UNC-Charlotte and interim UNC system president Dr. Bill Roper steps down.

With the exception of Gerlach’s behavior that one evening, none of those who left were doing a poor job or anything questionable. In fact, most of them were doing good to exceptional work, sometimes under some very difficult circumstances.

The apparent culprits in creating much of this instability have been Harry Smith, former chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, and Tom Fetzer, a former board member and former chairman of the state Republican Party.

When former Western Carolina University Chancellor John Bardo resigned due to being terminally ill, Fetzer had Peter Romary and his private investigative firm check into the leading candidate, thus scuttling that person’s appointment. Several news outlets later reported that Fetzer himself was interested in the position.

As for Smith, he said his goal was to make Spellings the “most successful president” in UNC history. Four months later, Spellings resigned.

Smith also played a role in Staton’s forced resignation. One board member, Steve Long, said Smith had a “personal vendetta” against Staton and that Smith had insulted Staton’s leadership. Smith told WRAL in Raleigh that he “never one time said a negative, attacking thing” about Staton. However, in emails sent to legislators, Smith said, “It’s been a scandalous couple of years at ECU that has and continues to embarrass our great university” and that Staton had “greatly hurt and divided ECU.”

Staton said he did not “initiate” his resignation, but when he resigned, he was replaced by Gerlach. Gerlach apparently was doing a good job until the drinking incident. There were two investigations of Gerlach’s behavior that night: one by the UNC board and one by Fetzer, who hired Romary to investigate. According to Carolina Journal, Smith also hired Romary to do work, but neither Smith nor Romary would say what that work was.

All of these actions, plus several others, have made the UNC system somewhat dysfunctional, and that has had an impact on attracting top-notch administrators.

“People are seeing heavy turnover in key leadership spots,” Thomas Harnisch, director of State Relations and Policy Analysts at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities told NC PolicyWatch. “That can lead to top talent not applying for those positions. Higher education is a community. People certainly talk to each other. All these transitions are piling up and taking a toll on the state’s reputation.”

Over time, this instability and high turnover rate among university leaders will trickle down into the classroom. Top-quality professors will, if they have not already, begin to look elsewhere for work.

Smith has announced he is stepping down from the Board of Governors in February. Maybe he will be replaced by someone who interferes less and will help restore some stability to the UNC system.


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