Harry Smith: The UNC Board of Governors is solving problems

Harry Smith, chairman of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors.
Harry Smith, chairman of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors. jwall@newsobserver.com

I wish to respond to the recent editorial titled “UNC Board of Governors needs basic changes.” This editorial failed to highlight the many successes of this Board.

Your editorial operates under the assumption that a handful of editors--who never come to any of our meetings and never engage in conversations with us–know more about developing and implementing policies that enhance the system and position it for sustainable, long-term success than the experienced leaders who currently sit on our board. Your editorial seemed more motivated by a political agenda than substantive facts. I challenge you to get educated about the UNC System and the challenges and opportunities that it faces.

This board is working to address and develop policies and solutions for, the long-term lineage issues within the UNC System, including addressing over $4 billion in repair needs across our system, developing a comprehensive online platform, and initiating a strategic plan for our state’s six Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Historically Minority Serving Institutions.

Each of the 17 institutions operates its budgets independently. While some schools borrow money at a five to seven percent rate, others borrow at three to four percent. Some schools across the system pay the same vendors higher percentages that others pay for the exact same services. We are working to correct this inefficiency.

This Board worked hard to make NC Promise a success, a program that was developed and supported by a bipartisan contingent of the legislature. Its sole intent is to adhere to the NC Constitutional mandate that education should be free as practical to everyone. The student debt in the United States is 1.5 trillion, and higher education is challenged like never before. Our national model that is, simply put, un-sustainable. We have worked hard to reverse this trend in North Carolina.

One example I often use to show how effectively this Board operates is our quick work to save Elizabeth City State University, which was previously allowed to go nearly bankrupt. I am still perplexed how these problems could happen in the UNC System. I might guess that the problems reflect what happens when we get rubber-stamping verses true governance. ECSU’s near collapse didn’t happen overnight.

But take a trip down east and look what is happening at ECSU today. Look at the result of our investment in that institution’s success.

This board understands that our institutions in rural areas can help solve the challenges of urbanization and, coupled with a strategy that we are developing, can help create sustainable health care statewide. This strategy will vitally serve rural North Carolinians of any economic background.

We established a comprehensive data analytics program, which tracks key areas of performance and identifies positive and negative trends in areas such as enrollment, acceptance rates, quality of student experience, application numbers, retention, and graduation rates. Other metrics will track financial performance and athletic programs on the institution side. These metrics will allow us to identify schools that may need help early on, and also recognize exceptional performances.

Higher education is no doubt the great ceiling breaker. It transforms lives, and it transformed mine as a first generation college student. The UNC System is the crown jewel of the state, and I’m fortunate to work with 27 other members with diverse backgrounds who put in time and hard work to do what’s right for the System and the state.

Governance can be tough at times, and governing bodies work with information that others may not be privy to when making tough decisions. We are going to keep working hard for this great state, and I ask you to join us in healthy dialogue and debate that respects differing views and opinions, rather than politically charged rhetoric that simply divides us.

Harry Smith is chairman of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.