New UNC Board of Governors chairman holds his fire at first meeting in charge

New UNC Board of Governors chairman holds his fire at first meeting in charge

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith (Photo: Joe Killian)

As Harry Smith opened Thursday’s UNC Board of Governors meeting – the first since he took over as chairman – he struck a conciliatory tone even as he doubled down on conservative changes he’s championed for the system.

Smith, a Greenville businessman, is part of an aggressive, conservative faction on the board that has quarreled with current and former board members and even UNC President Margaret Spellings.

But at Thursday’s meeting, Smith seemed to be reaching out to those with whom he butted heads as a vice chairman of the board while looking to move into the top spot.

“We do want to be a team that allows every member to have a voice,” Smith said, in an apparent reference to arguments over whether board members should publicly criticize the board or question its direction.

Earlier this year Louis Bissette Jr., then board chairman, was strongly criticized by the board’s more conservative members for penning an op-ed calling for board unity and a rejection of political partisanship.

Smith also pledged that the board would be working “in lockstep with our President.”

Spellings has repeatedly had to defend herself against the board’s most conservative members, fending off moves like the hiring of Board of Governors-specific staff that she said would undermine her and the UNC administration.

But Smith also made it clear Thursday that he would be aggressively pursuing some major changes for the UNC system – some of which are unpopular with Spellings, the board’s more moderate members and with chancellors, staff and faculty at the individual campus level.

Most of the changes Smith outlined in broad strokes had to do with running the university system more “like a business” – a phrase that has become a virtual mantra for the board’s more conservative members.

Among the shifts Smith said he’d like to see:

* Major changes to budgets from the UNC system to the individual campus level.

“There’s no doubt we want to reinvent the funding model and try to get something that is much less complicated and much more congruent to where we are as a system today,” Smith said.

Smith called it “staggering” that campuses continue to build new buildings while there are multi-million dollar backlogs of repairs and renovations and no real plan for carrying them out.

* Changes to, and perhaps the elimination of, some degree programs.

“We want to take a look at non-performing degree programs, duplication and inefficiency,” Smith said.

* Basing the compensation of UNC chancellors on “performance” metrics.

“I do want to develop a performance-based compensation plan for all our chancellors,” Smith said.

That change may be related to revamping the chancellor search process, which Smith said is already “off to the races.”

Earlier this month, the board was expected to announce a new chancellor for Western Carolina University. Instead, Smith abruptly announced that the prime candidate had withdrawn from the process and that the board would now be examining the selection process itself.

Smith told the board Thursday that members of the boards of trustees at individual UNC schools need to be chosen more carefully as well – with a particular eye toward the skills needed on each board. They also need to be “trained” better so that the board can delegate more to them, Smith said.

* More concentration on data-gathering and analysis, leading to more data-based decision making.

“One of the challenges we’ve had in the system is the ability to measure,” Smith said. “I used to walk around and say, ‘How are you doing there?’ And they say, ‘We’re doing great!’ – with no quantification of great.”

At the board’s work session early Thursday, members were shown a tool that could make that easier –  a massive, wide-ranging database of UNC system information called the “Board of Governors Data Dashboard.” Its purpose: making it easier to examine everything from dining hall and athletic system costs to student performance and information on foundations and endowments at the individual campus level.

However, because of privacy concerns, said board spokesman Joshua Ellis, the public will not have access to the database. Journalists and members of the public interested in the data can request “snapshots” of it, including updates as the data changes, Ellis said. But the public will not be able to actually peruse the database and make comparisons using the system’s tools.

“This is not a ‘gotcha’ tool,” Smith said.

Instead, he said, it will be a tool that will allow the board to more closely examine costs and performance and “run the business” of the system with regularly updated data that go into granular detail. Where the board sees success, Smith said, they can attempt to learn from it. Where there are problems, they can act more quickly.

“This is a mechanism to be proactive,” Smith said. “What I’ve seen since I’ve been here has been a heck of a lot of reactive.”

One area discussed repeatedly during the presentation was cutting costs and finding “efficiencies.” That’s a concern the board’s more conservative members bring to nearly every discussion. The database should make that a lot easier, Smith said.

“If we had a goal of lowering the expense side two percent…if each institution lowered it two percent…that is phenomenal,” Smith said.

Some board and audience members representing individual universities expressed some concern that universities may be unfairly compared to sister-schools whose circumstances are very different. But several chancellors in attendance said that as long as the board is careful with how it interprets the data, the database could be a powerful and positive tool.

“I’m a data guy,” said N.C. A&T Chancellor Harold Martin. “We’ve always used data in my tenure at A&T.”

“I think it’s important that we measure and it’s also important to make sure that the trends we see are also trending with investments in our institutions,” Martin said. There are benchmarks you can use to compare universities. You can’t compare a UNC to an Elizabeth City State University. But you can can compare like institutions.”

“As long as we’re recognizing that and we’re comparing like institutions in the system and comparing ourselves to like institutions outside the systems, I’m very supportive of it,” Martin said.

Bob Rucho, a former Republican state Senator who recently failed in an attempt to return to that body, said he likes the idea of the database being used to inform board decisions, but would like to see the idea taken further.

“If success is defined as educating and being employed, we probably need to look at what our graduates are doing in five or six years – if they are employed and at what level?” Rucho said.

Spellings was quick to point out that the UNC strategic plan calls for just such an analysis.

Board member Joe Knott said he isn’t sure the data-driven approach is going to measure the most valuable things.

“When we talk about NC State being compared to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech and so forth…I think we ought to be comparing them also to MIT and the other great institutions, not just state institutions,” Knott said. “Our flagship universities need to aspire to the very top.”

But that isn’t just measured in GPA’s, degrees received and dollars earned after graduation, Knott said.

“While everyone needs a job when they get out of college…that is not the only measure of success,” Knott said. “Ultimately the success of our university system cannot be measured really until the generation passes and the culture is still standing.”

Non-financial contributions students make to society and to culture are also valuable, Knott said, and the board shouldn’t lose site of that as it examines data to make the system less expensive and more efficient.

Smith politely shook off Knott’s concerns.

“I think most parents are concerned about kids getting a job,” Smith said. “But I’m going to soak up everything Joe said. I’m sure there’s deep meaning there.”