DG MARTIN COLUMN: Move the university headquarters?

Published 3:19 pm Tuesday, December 14, 2021

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Should the UNC System headquarters be moved from Chapel Hill to Raleigh where it could be conveniently closer to other state educational agencies and the state legislature that has ultimate control over it?

D.G. Martin

In its recently adopted budget bill, the legislature provided for this move. Nobody argues with its power to direct such a move. But there is a widespread difference of opinion about the wisdom of this action.

I will share some of these different views and then tell you my own thoughts.

Respected columnist and longtime observer of North Carolina government and culture Tom Campbell writes that the move would be a good development. Despite disagreeing with the senate majority leader, Phil Berger, about many educational issues, Campbell thinks a university move to Raleigh would be positive.

Even though Campbell supports the move to Raleigh, he criticizes legislators for meddling in university life, writing that “their hackles have really been raised by our state supported universities, which they contend doesn’t offer enough conservative philosophy to balance liberal teachings.”

But after his harsh criticism of the legislature, Campbell writes “there is one initiative in which they are on the right track. Prompted by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, arguably the most powerful politician in the state, lawmakers have long wanted to move the General Administration of the UNC System out of what they consider the liberal bastion of Chapel Hill. But Berger’s reason for including $11 million for the move in the current state budget makes sense. Berger is convinced the leadership of the universities should be housed in the same building with K-12 public schools and our community colleges in order to promote closer communication and cooperation, something long discussed but never accomplished.”

On the other hand, Art Padilla, author of “Portraits in Leadership: Six Extraordinary University Presidents,” and former UNC System associate vice president of academic affairs, recently wrote, “The move appears to be about politics and control and not about vaguely described synergies.”

Padilla remembers the late university President William Friday’s “philosophy about institutional freedom and independence.”

“As Mr. Friday was wont to say, the university was of the political process, but it was not in politics. In part, it is why we insisted that individual campuses not pressure the legislature on their own.”

Padilla recognizes that “Some may think the university should be treated like another state agency.”

But he uses Friday’s words to challenge that view. “No society can survive without an institution at its heart dealing with values, teaching the importance of history, and revealing the relationship between man and nature. It’s there, in the beating, human heart of the university where you get sustenance for the soul, where you find out what’s making your heart sing, where you are motivated to go against the odds to do something.”

For almost 10 years in the 1980s and 1990s I worked as the UNC System’s lobbyist, driving the 25 miles from Chapel Hill to Raleigh almost every day.

That distance served the university and the people of the state. It discouraged legislators from probing directly into the day-to-day details of university or campus life and viewing it as a state education agency rather than a real university.

Along the way, I had to respond to numerous complaints and inquiries about the political views expressed by some faculty members and activities of university affiliated projects. But even the harshest critics usually understood that the vigorous and free conflict of ideas is part and parcel of a strong university where the preparation of a thinking citizenry goes hand in hand with the creation of new ideas and new solutions to society’s problems.

I hope the legislature will do itself a favor: save money, protect the university system, and keep the system’s headquarters away from Raleigh.

D.G. Martin hosted “North Carolina Bookwatch” for more than 20 years.