Small wonder Harry Smith was “tired,” as he said when announcing his resignation as chairman of the UNC Board of Governors.
He was tired of the controversies, the constant demands and especially the politics — the politics of the board, the politics of the university system and the politics in Raleigh, all of which are entangled.
Smith’s successor, businessman Randy Ramsey of Beaufort, was elected unanimously to succeed Smith on Tuesday. Good luck to him, because Smith was right. The Board of Governors has grown increasingly politicized over the years, with things getting noticeably worse after Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2010 and began packing the board with their cronies.
Matters came to a head in January 2015 when the board, under then-Chairman John Fennebresque, forced Tom Ross, a noted progressive, to resign as UNC system president. It did so even though none of its members could point to any fault in Ross’ character or leadership. Since then, there have been many more controversies and resignations. Consider the long-running controversy over “Silent Sam,” the Confederate monument on the Chapel Hill campus. That debacle was one of many examples of the board’s meddling that led the UNC system president, Margaret Spellings, to abruptly resign after only three years in the job. Silent Sam also was one factor — one among many — behind the resignation of the UNC Chapel Hill chancellor, Carol Folt.
Then there was the forced resignation of Cecil Staton, the East Carolina University chancellor who, by all accounts, was doing a good job and got good reviews. (And now the suspension of the interim ECU chancellor, Dan Gerlach.) So, yes, there’s been a lot going on that could make Harry Smith justifiably weary.
Smith said his decision to resign was influenced partly by remembering how great a toll the job took on his predecessor, Lou Bissette, an Asheville lawyer, who stepped down in May 2018 after about three years. As he left, Bissette expressed concern that some board members strayed beyond their proper roles and meddled in university business. The board should stick to broad policy decisions, Bissette said. But Smith’s own combative style didn’t help, nor did his micromanaging. Smith’s conflicts with other board members as well as with Spellings and Folt added to the turmoil on the board.
To his credit, Smith did seem willing to learn from mistakes. Most notably, he said in May that he had come to realize that his support for putting Silent Sam back on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus after demonstrators had toppled it had been “quick and uneducated” and wrong. Unfortunately, by the time his thinking “evolved,” as he put it, Spellings and Folt had resigned and the controversy over the Confederate monument had made UNC and North Carolina look bad.
Maybe Smith’s realization that his hasty reaction had been bad for the university contributed to his decision to step down. Whatever his reasons, let’s hope that Ramsey will take to heart what Bissette and Smith have said on their way out.
Let’s hope the new chairman will work to minimize the micromanaging, tamp down the politics and do what’s best for the university system. The taxpayers of North Carolina are tired of all the turmoil, too.