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An ‘A’ for attitude

By Staff
(This editorial originally appeared in The Charlotte Observer.)
UNC system President Erskine Bowles is a savvy investment banker. He has brokered deals that dwarf the $6.5 billion university system budget. And as a former White House chief of staff, he has wrestled tougher opponents than the politicians in the North Carolina General Assembly.
Those skills have shone in his 18 months at the helm of the state’s universities. He has insisted on efficiency and negotiated better legislative funding for the UNC system.
Yet Mr. Bowles’ greatest strength has been a relentless push for public service. Without that commitment his tenure would be little more than an exercise in cost-cutting and reorganization of a high-profile public resource.
When Mr. Bowles took over the state’s 17-campus university system in 2006, he set an ambitious agenda: accountability, long-range planning and aligning spending with urgent state needs. He also faced formidable challenges, including runaway tuition increases that threatened the state’s constitutional mandate of affordable college for citizens.
He has quickly focused on each of those issues, with the following results.
Each of those things reflects good business principles. Each is aimed at the UNC system’s public service mission. Mr. Bowles deserves credit.
Yet he has also walked away from some key battles.
Those issues also deserve Mr. Bowles’ skillful leadership.
Public universities ought to be run in a businesslike way. Yet public universities are public resources. Their purpose is to serve the people. Mr. Bowles’ greatest strength so far is that he sees it that way, too, and puts his business know-how to work to serve that principle.