Education official cautions on political influence on UNC system – Asheville Citizen

ASHEVILLE – The head of the body that accredits UNC system schools cautioned the UNC Board of Governors here Friday against being too influenced by state legislators and other politicians.

But Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, stopped well short of saying she had found any problems at UNC schools caused by political pressure.

She told the board the only action she had taken on complaints from the system’s Faculty Assembly that legislators had improperly inserted themselves into UNC affairs was speaking to the board Friday during its meeting at UNC Asheville.

Wheelan said some of the issues raised by faculty probably occurred “because the board was not aware of our expectations.”

The Board of Governors pushed out former system President Tom Ross, a Democrat, in 2015 and replaced him with current President Margaret Spellings, who was Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush. The board’s chairman resigned amidst controversy over the switch.

System faculty have also raised concerns about legislative initiatives such as dropping tuition at some UNC schools and a move in December, before Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper took office, to take away the power to appoint many trustees at UNC schools from the governor and give it to the General Assembly.

The Board of Governors makes policy for the entire UNC system. Most of its members are also appointed by the legislature.

The board is discussing whether to end the ability of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which is funded by donations, to file lawsuits. Some supporters say that would be tantamount to closing the center.

The center has drawn the ire of some legislators and a 30 percent budget cut the Senate proposed for the UNC School of Law this year – reduced in the final budget to a 4 percent reduction – has been linked to displeasure over the center.

Stephen Leonard, a political science professor at UNC Chapel Hill and immediate past president of the UNC system’s Faculty Assembly, said during an interview Friday that the board has not pushed back against political pressure on the system.

He said there is an “open door” for political influence on the system “so large you could drive five Mack trucks through it.”

Wheelan’s remarks came during a general overview of the accreditation process and her organization’s standards.

She said board members appointed by politicians must walk a fine line in their dealings with politicians and encouraged them not to be unduly influenced.

“You should be able to say: ‘Governor, or senator or representatives, thank you very much. I’ll take that under advisement, but I’ve got a little more information that I need to consider that you perhaps don’t have,'” Wheelan told board members. “That’s a tough one and I know it’s a tough one, but it is what we expect.”

Board Chairman Louis Bissette, an Asheville attorney and former mayor, said afterward he has “not experienced any interference from the legislature.”

“We get a big part of our budget from them, so we have got to listen to them,” he said, but Bissette said he has always understood that his first obligation is to the UNC system.

Spellings said she does not feel as if the General Assembly is micromanaging the system, and praised the state budget the legislature passed recently as the best in 10 years for the UNC system. She said no UNC schools are facing accreditation issues.

“Every bit of authority that this board or anyone in this university has comes from the General Assembly, like every single dollar, so we understand the chain of command,” she said. “They pass laws. We implement them.”

This story has been changed to more fully describe the debate over the future of the UNC Center on Civil Rights.