Late last week newly-minted Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey penned an op-ed titled “UNC System is moving forward.” Undoubtedly, Ramsey had to respond to the latest flashpoint of perennial (and self-inflicted) turmoil at UNC. The revelation that UNC paid a neo-confederate hate group millions of dollars to “resolve” the Silent Sam issue in a backroom deal warrants an explanation from the leadership who orchestrated such a morally wrong idea. Ramsey’s characterization of UNC as “moving forward” is deeply ironic considering the fact that the BOG arranged a payout to a group that valorizes a past in which it was legal to own other human beings as property. Yet Ramsey not only refused to address (or even name) the $2.5 million elephant in the room, but instead offered an appraisal of UNC’s trajectory that could not be more detached from the reality of the crisis that faces the university system under current “leadership.”
Ramsey’s central thesis was that while the news coverage has focused on “various leadership fluctuations,” change in itself “isn’t something to be feared.” In a sense, Ramsey is correct. Change is inevitable and an institution’s willingness to embrace transformative change and adapt is often a barometer of its health and longevity.
Of course, this point is wholly irrelevant. UNC is not undergoing a period of “leadership fluctuations.” Instead, leaders have fled (or been ousted) from a system that is at the mercy of a Board that has wrought ideologically-driven destabilization and austerity.
Notably, Ramsey has benefitted from these “fluctuations.” He is chair because former Board Chair Harry Smith resigned from the BOG twice (he ceded the BOG chairmanship and then left the Board entirely). Smith’s tenure was marked by seemingly nonstop controversy ranging from allegedly forcing out an ECU chancellor to texting and emailing former UNC System President Margaret Spellings “20 times a day.” Smith’s resignation came just hours after it was reported that Tom Shanahan, the top lawyer for the UNC System, sent two cease and desist letters to an attorney who had allegedly claimed to be a lawyer for the UNC System but had in fact only worked for at least two members of the Board of Governors (Harry Smith and Tom Fetzer).
The BOG had to replace the UNC System President because Margaret Spellings abruptly announced her resignation from the post three years before her contract was set to expire. Her entrance into the system was precipitated by a Republican-dominated BOG firing UNC System President Tom Ross in a politically motivated ouster. Yet the deeply conservative BOG, plagued by meddling and mismanagement, could not even retain the longtime Republican and former Education Secretary for George W. Bush. The BOG’s management proved so chaotic that calls for reform were literally coming from inside the house. A rare rebuke from Steve Long, the same person responsible for the closure of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, stated: “I do believe that the leadership of our board has gotten too involved in the management of the university in certain cases.”
Carol Folt’s resignation in the mist of turmoil over Silent Sam also speaks to the BOG’s true motives. Folt originally planned to step down after spring commencement. However, in a closed emergency meeting, the BOG drastically shortened the timeline and accepted her resignation effective January 31 2019. Smith said “We just felt it was better to compress the timeline and then work more toward a healing process.” Smith further criticized Folt’s action, calling her failure to consult with the BOG “stunning,” but remained adamant that the action was not punitive. Perhaps paying off a hate group to the tune of $2.5 million was the healing the BOG found sufficient.
More recently, the US Department of Education (under none other than Betsy DeVos) found UNC to be in violation of crime and safety reporting. The department concluded in August that the UNC did not provide adequate systems for victims of sexual violence and omitted “dozens of serious crimes from annual reports” that demonstrated a “lack of administrative capability that ‘remains a matter of serious concern.’” UNC not only failed to protect its students, but sidelined the findings, a point Ramsey conveniently omits. Perhaps the BOG was so busy supporting a $2 million mobile force platoon to “clamp down on protestors” that they refused to take any action that would invest in collective student and worker safety.
Finally, Ramsey points to the state legislature as an entity that makes the UNC System “truly remarkable.” Yet it was the same legislature, with a conservative supermajority, that appointed a cohort of hardline right-wing ideologues who have wrought chaos and confusion for students and workers. Perhaps then the “leadership fluctuations” Ramsey mentions (in an impressive flourish of doublespeak) are the point. Rumors that former student body president and current Republican House Speaker Tim Moore has coveted the job as UNC System president have circulated for some time. Tom Fetzer derailing the careers of two separate chancellors across the state perhaps exposes a higher motive to gain a chancellorship. Notably, Moore and Fetzer (a Jesse Helms protégé) abide by a governing principle where privatization reigns and public goods are for sale. Without a turnaround plan, the UNC System is “moving forward” into becoming institution that is decidedly not for the people.