As disputes at North Carolina and Michigan State take partisan overtones, can boards, leaders, faculty members and lawmakers back away from polarization to lead public universities effectively?
Michigan State University and the University of North Carolina became uncanny reflections of each other this week as the new culture wars claimed two casualties on campus in the form of ousted executives.
On Monday, UNC Chapel Hill chancellor Carol Folt handed in her resignation at the same time as she decided to remove the remnants of the toppled Silent Sam Confederate monument. Two days later, Michigan State interim president John Engler tendered his resignation rather than be fired in the wake of another in a long series of missteps seen as hostile toward victims of sexual assault.
Clearly, the details and dynamics of each situation are different. In North Carolina, Folt was a leader who had faced criticism for not acting as she unsuccessfully supported a middle-of-the-road solution between progressive activists who wanted the statue off campus and a conservative system board that did not. When she did act, citing safety concerns, she suddenly found her tattered image at Chapel Hill being rehabilitated.
Engler, on the other hand, was embattled after he made comments and took actions that set victims of sexual assault and the Me Too movement against him. But he had enjoyed the backing of a Board of Trustees until new members took seats — and until he said last week that sexual assault victims in the spotlight were enjoying the moment. Few on campus seemed to be backing him in the wake of his ouster.
Nonetheless, both leaders found themselves dismissed earlier than they’d hoped. Folt planned to step down after graduation, but the UNC System Board of Governors accepted her resignation as of the end of the month. Engler, who until this week planned to stay on until a new president would be in place sometime this summer, intended to stay on until Jan. 23, only to have his board vote Thursday to oust him immediately.
Underneath all those details, the two cases fit into a larger trend of cultural change causing governance challenges on campus. Anyone who remembers the 1960s will tell you that’s nothing new. It is still notable today for playing out in the form of politically charged clashes between presidents and boards at public institutions. In North Carolina, Folt found her actions on the Confederate statue angering board members appointed by Republicans with little sympathy for those who study and teach at Chapel Hill and felt the monument glorified racism and white supremacy. Engler’s background as a powerful and connected Republican politician could have been seen as a strength at a time when the university in crisis would likely need backing from lawmakers, but he also brought a fair share of baggage.
It’s a particularly concerning development for higher education supporters because boards have traditionally been seen as protecting universities and their potentially controversial scholarship from political whims. Having elected or appointed boards who in turn are responsible for hiring and firing presidents and chancellors strikes a balance by providing much-needed political insulation but still keeping institutions accountable to the taxpayers who fund them and the politicians in charge of the states.
If clashes continue to take on tones of the political polarization that has poisoned so much public discourse, it will harm governance and universities themselves, the fear goes.
“Governance cannot break the university system quickly, but it can break it steadily over the long term,” said Ellis Hankins, a former executive director of the North Carolina League of Municipalities who ran for state senate in 2016 and who has taught at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and Duke University. “If we don’t have enlightened, effective university system governance, we’re no longer going to have a world-class university system. You start having more trouble attracting and retaining faculty members. It can become a downward spiral, which I’m very concerned about.”
Engler’s resignation letter provides a striking example of a cultural change bringing about a burst of partisan accusations. The resigning interim president, who spent three terms as a Republican governor of Michigan, opened his letter by discussing trustees’ political affiliations.
“You have advised me that five Democratic members of the MSU Board, including yourself, have requested my resignation as MSU President,” he wrote to the board’s chair, Dianne Byrum. “The election of two new Democratic members and the appointment of a Democrat to replace Trustee George Perles has created a new majority on the board.”
An Engler supporter also turned to politics, telling the Lansing State Journal that trustees and Engler’s critics should have examined the reforms that were put in place under Engler’s watch.
“It’s more about partisanship than it is about scholarship,” Dan Pero, who managed two Engler campaigns for governor and spent a term as his chief of staff, told the newspaper.
During Thursday’s meeting to accept Engler’s resignation, trustees maintained that they were acting in the university’s best interest, not in a political fashion.
“It’s not a partisan decision,” said Dan Kelly, the board’s vice chair. “I don’t think it’s a Democrat or Republican position to condemn comments that are not consistent with the values or what we hope to be the values of the university.”
Indeed, many Republicans were horrified by Engler’s comments about abuse survivors. And former lieutenant governor Brian Calley, a Republican, was credited with recruiting Nancy Schlichting, one of the new trustees who voted to accept Engler’s resignation Thursday, to the board.
Engler’s case may be an aberration, of course. He is a former politician, and his relationship with some trustees was already remarkably poor — one trustee, Brian Mosallam, described Engler during Thursday’s meeting as an individual with an instinct for division, callousness and hostility.
Yet the clash between Folt and the UNC system…