Does size matter? Apparently, it does when it comes to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.
The first bill Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed was a measure reducing the UNC board from 32 members to 24 members – a change pushed by the Republican-controlled legislature, which argued the larger board was unwieldy.
If you think the 32-member board was large, consider this: The old Consolidated University system had a 100-member board.
Messing with college boards is playing with dynamite – especially in a college-centric state like North Carolina.
The last time it was tried, it set off what Democratic Gov. Bob Scott called “a civil war in higher education.”
The issues in the 1971 reorganization will sound familiar today: political interference from Raleigh, worried black colleges and distrust of Chapel Hill liberals.
During the first half of the 20th century, a college education in North Carolina was mostly for the chosen few – the sons and daughters of the elite, the gifted and the determined strivers. In 1930, there were 18,929 students enrolled in North Carolina colleges and universities.
With the Baby Boom explosion, the state’s campuses had grown to 140,485 students by 1970.
North Carolina’s higher education had divided governance. In 1970, the Consolidated University of North Carolina System included six campuses with the nine other state-supported campuses coordinated by the State Board of Higher Education.
Individual campuses had become increasingly aggressive in lobbying the legislature, seeking new degree-granting programs and new buildings. Lawmakers often measured their effectiveness by their ability to deliver for their regional campus.
Scott was concerned about the increasing political infighting among the schools for the state’s limited tax dollars. “If allowed to continue, it could rip the system apart,” he said.
Scott, an N.C. State graduate, came to the debate with a deeply ingrained skepticism about Chapel Hill as the institution of the state’s elite. “I think one problem, at least in the past, has been that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been too much of a ‘closed shop’ attitude,” Scott wrote to George Watts Hill, a Durham banker and major UNC backer.
Although the consolidated university had a 100-member board chaired by the governor, Scott believed it was really run by UNC President Bill Friday, one of the most respected figures in American higher education, in conjunction with the board’s executive committee – or as Scott put it, “a small clique of men with iron-fisted power.”
In May 1971, a committee created by Scott released a report recommending the creation of a board of regents to govern the entire system, with each of the 16 campuses having its own board of trustees. As part of the plan, the consolidated university and the State Board of Higher Education would be merged under a single chancellor, later changed to a single president.
Scott pushed a plan that would have diminished the power of Chapel Hill. Scott proposed a new 32-member board that would include 15 members from the consolidated university, 15 from the regional universities and two from the State Board of Higher Education. It meant that members from the consolidated university could be outvoted, and it drew strong opposition from many UNC allies, who feared the restructuring would reduce the importance of the state’s research universities including its flagship at Chapel Hill.
Using hardball tactics, Scott suggested budgetary reprisals in the legislature if the consolidated university fought his restructuring plan.
That brought a rebuke from the Greensboro Daily News. “It is both unfortunate and ironic that Governor Scott is campaigning to remove politics from higher education with political pressure tactics of the roughest kind.”
Ahead of a special session on the issue, both sides furiously worked the issue.
On Oct. 25, 3,000 students from the state’s five historically black colleges rallied at the Capitol saying they wanted broader black representation on the board. Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee, the state’s first black mayor, warned that the reorganization could mean the end of the state’s five black campuses.
During a few days in October, the legislature debated, argued and voted before passing the reorganization Oct. 31. Scott directed much of the battle personally.
What happened next was remarkable, if not unprecedented. After the bill was passed on a Friday, many lawmakers headed home after the special session. But the bill had not been formally enrolled nor the special session adjourned. Scott got wind Friday night that UNC forces intended to employ a rarely used parliamentary maneuver to bring the bill back to the House floor Saturday morning.
Scott and key aides desperately worked the phones Friday, until midnight, attempting to get lawmakers to return to Raleigh. Scott wrote personal notes to 30 House members, staying up until 4 a.m. and rising again at 6:30 a.m. Scott delivered coffee and sandwiches to his team in the legislature. One House member, Charlie Phillips of Guilford County, who was sick in bed, was offered an ambulance by Scott to return to Raleigh. Another legislator trying to leave town was stopped by a highway patrolman and told to return to Raleigh to see the governor. State Sen. Skipper Bowles of Greensboro, vacationing at Martha’s Vineyard, returned by private plane.
By Saturday morning, the pro-UNC forces won a vote to reconsider by a 55-54 margin. With that, the Scott forces agreed to renegotiate and the new UNC board included 16 trustees from the consolidated UNC and 16 from the regional universities. That meant that the consolidated university forces could not be outvoted.
The new board was given almost complete planning, program and budget control.
In planning the new UNC board, a planning committee voted 17-11 to locate the UNC General Administration in Chapel Hill. Scott voted against the Chapel Hill site.
The planning committee named Friday as the president of the new system, to no one’s surprise. Scott would later write in his diary, “I expressed some strong reservations, but I voted for Bill.”
Scott was not alone in his skepticism of Friday. Some North Carolina conservatives saw it as a chance to get rid of Friday.
“As you are well aware, the general public, during the past ten years, has become disenchanted with higher education in North Carolina,” conservative Raleigh businessman John W. Pope, the father of conservative leader Art Pope, wrote in a letter to Scott in February 1972. “Bill Friday was the leader of higher education during this period of time. In the sports world, or the business world, you fire your leaders when they do not produce positive results – your political leaders fail to get re-elected.
Decades later, when Republican conservatives won political control in Raleigh, they ousted UNC President Tom Ross – a Friday-like progressive – and replaced him with an outsider.
Rob Christensen has covered politics for The News & Observer of Raleigh for nearly four decades, and is also the author of The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.