Recalling UNC-G’s Otis Singletary, a strong leader who wouldn’t tolerate meddling boards

UNC President Margaret Spellings attends the UNC Board of Governors meeting where an emergency session was called to discuss her departure package during a closed session Oct. 26, 2018 in Chapel Hill.
UNC President Margaret Spellings attends the UNC Board of Governors meeting where an emergency session was called to discuss her departure package during a closed session Oct. 26, 2018 in Chapel Hill. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The rocky relations between UNC administrators and the hyper-active Board of Governors is the educational topic of the hour. But it is far from new — as a personal memory may suggest.

A central figure in this memory was Otis Singletary, the new Chancellor of Woman’s College, now UNC-Greensboro in the mid-1960s. A brilliant Mississippian, educated at Millsaps and LSU, he came to North Carolina from the University of Texas, where he had been an accomplished teacher and scholar.

I read two of his books, “Negro Militia and Reconstruction” and another, his dissertation under the great T. Harry Williams on the Mexican War. They piqued my curiosity. We invited the Singletarys to dinner and we soon became friends — so close, in fact, that he lured me temporarily into teaching American history. In those days, a bold chancellor could even make faculty appointments. And Otis Singletary was nothing if not bold.

But this is mere prologue. Singletary was that rare figure, a fine administrator, well acquainted with the follies that vex academic institutions. His experiences at Texas had sensitized him to overweening supervisory boards — to such a degree that when the University of Texas Regents later offered him its presidency he responded, to the chairman, “not while you’re running it.” The Texas Regents were notoriously parochial — with no more appreciation for scholarship, said one sage, “than a razorback sow.” Above all else, they deemed themselves guardians of the sacrosanct oil depletion allowance that conferred big tax benefits on production of the sacred fluid and even censored the student newspaper, the Daily Texan, which had dared question it.

Thus sensitized, Otis Singletary observed that the three branches of UNC, including his, were drastically over-administered — and this long before the “speaker ban” law tied UNC in knots and jeopardized its accreditation. He once exclaimed, “I can’t change a closet light bulb in a closet here without phoning somebody in Raleigh.” But these attentions were by no means like the actions of the present Board of Governors that have seen one president deposed for being a Democrat, and his successor and a Chapel Hill chancellor driven away, all in the space of five years.

The officiousness of the 1960s , though vexing, emanated from a more benign source, including a beehive of gubernatorial subordinates in the Department of Administration. They were a nuisance for Singletary, and a factor, undoubtedly, in his early departure — to be first director of the Job Corps, then chief lobbyist for higher education in Washington, and later, president of the University of Kentucky, where he even had his own personalized bourbon. He did not fancy bossy boards.

If you see certain parallels between then and now, you are getting the key point.

I tried to persuade my friend Singletary that the distinction between Texas and North Carolina in university supervision was real and beneficial. UNC had been around since 1793 and had educated many traditional state leaders — was indeed regarded as a sheltering mother. With a few malign exceptions, trustees and legislators wished to treat her in a manner befitting her age and prestige, even If their affection occasionally overflowed into “smother-love.” The chancellor listened but I don’t think he bought the distinctions. And so UNC lost a fine administrator.

Today the supervisory impulse far exceeds the old smother-love. We have a pushy Board of Governors riven with political faction and party bias. Some of its members suffer from the delusion that state institutions (especially in Chapel Hill) are indoctrinating innocent youth in political liberalism. although they offer no specific examples. Few superstitions are sillier, or more perennial but this one may explain its alienating clashes with two presidents and a chancellor who, they clearly believe, knew far less than they about the art and science of higher education.

Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder, Jr. of Chapel Hill was an editor and writer in Washington, D.C.