Published 8:52 pm Monday, April 16, 2007

By Staff
(This editorial originally appeared in The Charlotte Observer.)
The 32 men and women on the UNC system Board of Governors oversee a $6.5 billion public budget, 64 million square feet of building space, 40,000 employees and 53,000 beds — a good portion of which is funded with tax dollars or student tuition. Yet when it comes time to decide who sits on that powerful board, it’s all about politics. Here’s the latest proof of why the process needs to change.
Last week, lawmakers in the state House elected eight members to the Board of Governors. Among them: Purnell Swett, a former school superintendent in Robeson County who pleaded guilty to taking $17,000 from his school system. (He cut a special deal that let him accept punishment without admitting guilt.)
A few days later, the state Senate elected its slate of nominees. Not among them: Luther Hodges Jr., a former U.S. commerce secretary and the son of a respected former governor. It was the second time Hodges has been rejected for the board, even though as a former bank chief executive he was well-qualified.
Swett’s overriding qualification? We don’t know of one.
Hodges’ flaw? He switched to the Republican Party a few years ago, a fact Democrats who run the Senate probably don’t like.
It’s wrong for someone who got his hand caught in the cookie jar to wind up on a weighty state board. It’s wrong for a smart, respected businessman to be shunned because he’s in the wrong party.
Those kind of shameful maneuvers go on because politicians in the state Legislature have a stranglehold on appointing the Board of Governors. That practice is so full of rat holes only one other state — New York — allows it.
It’s simple: Political patronage does not work in the best interests of the state’s universities or its citizens. The law sets goals for the board’s membership aimed at racial, gender, ethnic and geographic diversity. A record of who has served over 33 years shows appointments have not met the goals.
Let’s take geography.
After the latest round of appointments, 14 of 32 members live in the Triangle — Raleigh, Cary, Durham or Chapel Hill — where the state’s two largest campuses, N.C. State and Chapel Hill, are located.
Three towns and counties that have state universities lack any direct representation on the Board of Governors.
Places such as Charlotte and Greenville, where the state’s fourth and third largest universities are located, have equal or fewer representatives on the board than places with smaller campuses, such as Fayetteville.
The same pattern holds for gender and race.
Get the picture? The board is not representative of the state’s population.
A report last year by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research fingered that weakness in the governance of the state’s universities. It recommended a valuable reform: allowing the governor, who has a statewide constituency, to appoint three-fourths of the members of the Board of Governors and the legislature to appoint the remainder.
That alone won’t keep politics off an influential state board. But it will keep it in check by inserting broader accountability — and perhaps avoid goofy moves such as appointing someone convicted of financial wrongdoing to oversee a billion-dollar public resource.