A search committee is at work to select the next president of the 16-campus UNC System. It is an important decision that deserves great discernment. Before going further, however, we need to throw a bouquet to Dr. Bill Roper.
Since January, Roper has served as interim president after the departure of Margaret Spellings. Roper has a long and distinguished career of public service in Washington and North Carolina. He headed UNC Hospitals and oversaw the building of the UNC Healthcare system into a large, nationally recognized care provider. He was just before retirement when the UNC Board of Governors asked him to become the interim president. Roper said his first priority was to restore calm and stability. Considered a prime candidate for the permanent job, he decided to remove himself from consideration. There has been conjecture about his reasons, but we prefer to believe he placed the priorities of the system above his own interests. He will leave the new president in a better place than what he inherited. Bill Roper deserves our gratitude.
Higher education is at a crossroads, and the new president will take over a system needing reform. Relations between the administration and Board of Governors have been strained. New role definitions are necessary to avoid future politicizing and micromanaging from the board, while also improving two-way communications and accountability. Great education outcomes don’t result from an unstable and contentious environment. In the next 12 months as many as five of the 16 institutions will need to select new chancellors. Even though our system has recorded enrollment increases the past two years, much of that is due to better retention rates. Nationally, enrollments are declining, primarily because of costs. Five to six years are now needed for undergraduate graduation today; accompanying that diploma is $26,000 in debt. Employers are increasing their complaints about grade inflation and the lack of basic skills knowledge, saying they have problems finding workers needed for today’s jobs.
What criteria should the search committee establish in the new presidential selection? It would be highly desirable to select either a North Carolina native or someone with extensive knowledge of our state, so the new president won’t have to spend the first year learning the job, as well as the geography, the politics and culture. The incoming president needs a strong administrative record, a history of consensus building and the ability to listen, then lead. A background in academia, especially higher education, would be helpful, but isn’t a deal-breaker. Margaret Spellings’ priorities of accessibility, affordability and accountability are still desirable goals.
To ensure the new president’s success, other changes are desirable. Legislators need to do a better job of selecting BOG members. Members should have some experience in education, lobbyists should be disqualified and more representation by women, minorities and members of both political parties is essential. Finally, since lawmakers have appointment power, they need to hold BOG members more accountable.
In summary, the perfect candidate should combine the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job, the courage of David, compassion of Mother Teresa, eloquence of Martin Luther King, the humility of Pope Francis, the leadership ability of Washington, the vision of Bill Gates, and boldness of Joan of Arc.
Is it impossible to find such a person? Perhaps, but it underscores why the task of this search committee is so important.