Governor Martin was correct | Eastern North Carolina Now

Tom Campbell
    Jim Martin was the most underappreciated governor in our state's modern history. Never the flamboyant, headline-seeking politician, Martin was a down-to-earth old school conservative Republican who had to deal with a highly partisan opposition legislature for eight years. His record of accomplishments is commendable. Since leaving office he has been judicious in speaking out in advocating public policy issues.

    So, when former Governor Martin writes an op-ed piece in response to an obviously partisan column in both the Charlotte and Raleigh newspapers, I want to hear what he says.

    The original column questioned Lee Roberts' appointment by UNC System President Peter Hans to be interim chancellor of UNC Chapel Hill. As President, Hans not only has the authority but also the responsibility to make that decision. But the main thrust of the article condemns the takeover of higher education by Republicans. The writer is appalled by it.

    Some of us remember the 1971 deal then-Governor Bob Scott made with the General Assembly to restructure our state-owned colleges and universities. Some say this "deal with the devil" was that if the legislature approved the plan, the General Assembly in turn would have absolute authority to name the governing board of the new system.


    Former UNC President Bill Friday frequently lamented that deal, saying our universities should not be controlled by politicians. But that's what's happened. Since Democrats dominated the legislature, they got to choose the board. There were token appointments given Republicans, women and minorities, but the boards were heavily dominated by white male Democrats.

    Martin responds, "it was OK when Democrats (whether conservative or progressive) ran North Carolina's entire system of public universities for more than a hundred years, with only token input from Republicans and other unwelcome minorities." There was opposition from Republicans, but it didn't change anything.

    The governor says that "UNC belongs to all in North Carolina, not just Democrats." He is obviously correct, but is the process right? Just because Democrats did it for so many years isn't sufficient justification for Republicans to do so now. Momma always said "two wrongs don't make a right." It points to the need for change.

    The manner in which North Carolina appoints members to the UNC Board of Governors (and even to university boards) needs radical change. Just because someone can garner enough votes in the legislature to get elected isn't proof of any qualifications for making important decisions about running our universities. If you were going to constitute the ideal governing board for our state's higher education institutions what experiences, what qualifications, what diversification would you believe best? That's what we need to be discussing, instead of the political party to which the potential board member belongs.


    And now would be the ideal time to begin this discussion, since we will be electing representatives to our legislature starting in March. Ask the candidates where they stand on changing the process for naming boards of higher education, then vote accordingly.

    The second issue Martin raises relates to naming Lee Roberts as interim chancellor of UNC Chapel Hill. The original column questioned Robert's qualifications, saying he does not come from the academy or academia.

    Governor Martin, himself a former college professor, rebuts the notion that anyone leading a university (or the system) must come from academia. That reasoning presupposes that unless they have academic bona fides a candidate can't be qualified to head a university. Martin correctly points out that former Governor Terry Sanford (although a lawyer) had no academic experience before becoming President of Duke. Neither did Judge Tom Ross, who led both Davidson College and the UNC System. Dick Spangler, who had chaired the Mecklenburg County Board of Education, ably led the UNC System, as did Erskine Bowles, former chief-of-staff to the President. Former Governor Scott headed the Community College System and current UNC President Hans served both the Board of Governors and as state Community College President. They did not come up through the academy, however few can argue they served with honor and success.

    Let us be clear about Lee Roberts. He has a rich family background of public service, including being State Budget Director under Pat McCrory. He has served on both the Community College and UNC Board of Governors. He is known to be a humble, good listener who makes good decisions. Roberts is a good choice and will likely be named permanently to the job.

    We should however, object to the recent naming of chancellors from the ranks of the Board of Governors. That opens up the very real accusation of partisan politics. Once again, this practice reaffirms the argument to change how boards and leaders are named.


    Education is the most important function of state government. We hope that Governor Martin, along with other prominent leaders, will speak forcefully to the need for change.

Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program NC SPIN that aired 22 ½ years. Contact him at
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