UNC-Greensboro staff and faculty offered varied reactions to the resignation of UNC Board of Governors Chairman John Fennebresque on Oct. 26, with quite a few refusing to comment on the latest development in what had become a controversial search for a new president of the University of North Carolina system.
“The Faculty Assembly believes that it is an appropriate prerogative of the Board of Governors to choose its own leadership. We would not presume to comment on those matters,” said Steve Leonard, Chair of the UNC Faculty Assembly, the system-wide faculty advisory group to the UNC President, in a statement to The Carolinian.
Fennebresque’s resignation followed the board’s selection of former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings last month as president of the UNC system. The choice of Spellings, who served in the administration of President George W. Bush and was one of the prime supporters of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, has been criticized for a lack of transparency and allegations that the decision was motivated by partisan politics, particularly the desire of the Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly to put a conservative stamp on the state’s colleges and universities.
Spellings also generated controversy shortly after becoming secretary of education when she criticized an episode of the PBS children’s series “Postcards from Buster,” where the animated rabbit encounters a child being raised by a lesbian couple. The episode went unaired in most television markets as a result.
Many of the faculty members contacted for this story said that they lacked enough information to make an informed statement on the matter, a sign perhaps of the opaque nature of the board’s recent decision-making.
“From my perspective as one of UNCG’s delegates to the UNC-system Faculty Assembly, neither the UNC Board of Governors nor its former Chair worked closely with faculty on the selection of the newly appointed UNC-system President,” UNCG Professor John Lepri said. “Thus, I hope it is no surprise that I don’t have much to say about the departure of Mr. Fennebresque from the board.”
The controversy began when the Board of Governors ousted current UNC President Tom Ross in January. The decision to remove Ross drew criticism from several quarters, including North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, the state’s highest ranking elected Democrat.
“I’m deeply concerned that the forcing out of President Ross is another blow to higher education in North Carolina at a time when we need universities to lead in innovation and critical thinking,” Cooper said in a statement released at the time. “He has led the University system through difficult times, striving to give students the skills they need for tomorrow’s jobs.”
Ross will leave office on Jan. 3, 2016.
Fennebresque, a Charlotte attorney, enumerated his reasons for leaving in a statement to the Charlotte Observer.
“With the search completed, I believe now is the time for a fresh start for our University system and its 17 campuses as well as for this Board of Governors,” Fennebresque said. “So today I am stepping down from the Board to make way for and encourage new leadership. Significant challenges lie ahead for the system as it continues to provide the unparalleled education our students deserve. I want to thank the Board of Governors, my family and friends, my law firm and my many supporters who have rallied around me throughout the difficult process of change and the great promise of opportunity for the University of North Carolina system.”
Like many, Lepri hopes that the university system can move beyond the conflicts and continue its mission of educating students.
“Looking ahead, most of the faculty I’ve spoken with are guardedly optimistic that the future holds potential for greater communication between the Board, the UNC system faculty and the General Administration of the UNC system including its new President,” Lepri said. “Communication and sharing of mission among us are essential for restoring the historical prominence of the UNC system among state university systems.”
Lepri also feels that moving on will allow faculty to concentrate on other matters.
“The erosion of earning power and challenges to academic freedom are among our biggest issues right now,” Lepri said.