As our University goes through a transition period between President Eric Kaler and incoming president Joan Gabel, students, faculty and administrators — everyone who makes the University what it is — are thinking long and hard about what they want the University to be in coming years.
The outgoing President of the University of North Carolina Margaret Spellings put this quite well at a press conference: "Governance is always being calibrated and recalibrated over and over, and that’s part of the fun of the job."
However, I don't know how much fun it was on the job for Spellings. Her presidency has been, as it has for many public University presidents across the country, a short and bumpy ride. As she felt, partisan politicians have a tendency to prevent leadership from Universities from focusing on the true mission of the University: academics. North Carolina and Spellings offer valuable lessons about what partisan micromanaging from above may feel like for incoming president Gabel.
Much of the damage inflicted on higher education in North Carolina came from above. In a hyper-partisan North Carolina, the UNC system became a political battleground. When Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2010, they undertook a “systematic partisan purge” of the UNC’s Board of Governors. They remade the Board in their own image, forced out UNC’s Democrat-appointed president in 2015 and appointed Spellings, a former education secretary in the George W. Bush Administration, as the new system president.
By 2017, UNC's board was nearly 79 percent Republican and willing to insert itself into the daily affairs of UNC. Even though she was one of their own, this did not bode well for Spellings. The board took aim at a legal advocacy center at UNC, banning its legal advocacy on behalf of poor and minority clients. A Republican board member stated that civil rights work was good, but just not under the University’s name.
When protests began to start on campus about the confederate Silent Sam monument, board members rebuked Spellings for discussing security concerns with the Democratic Governor. Spellings eventually resigned.
The friction from above was too much for the Chancellor of UNC’s Chapel Hill campus Carol Folt too. Seeking an end to the Silent Sam controversy on campus, she proposed moving the now-toppled statue and its remaining pedestal to a museum. The board, not wanting to give up on tradition, rejected the proposal. Folt, exhausted, resigned.
North Carolina is perhaps an extreme example of partisan micromanaging from above, but it is not something Minnesota isn’t familiar with. Last year, the Minnesota Daily reported that after conservative pressure had resulted in the removal of a reproductive health fellowship at the Medical School, abortion played a role in the selection of Regent Randy Simonson.
The Minnesota Republican-controlled legislature rejected the referrals of both the House and Senate higher education committees in favor of Simonson. After Simonson was selected, Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, told the Star Tribune that “Randy Simonson matched up with the values of being conservative and pro-life; those are important to members.” He added, “but the main reason is that his resume is really strong.”
Minnesota’s new legislature, class of politicians and partisan regents must keep their politics out of campus — or else our state may look a lot more like North Carolina. Students shouldn’t be paying for politician’s political grievances. Hopefully, they’ll let Gabel do what she does best: lead.