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The UNC System Board of Governors is creating news this week at its bimonthly meeting with a focus on controversial issues, including curbing the litigation role of a liberal-leaning civil rights center and complaining that system President Margaret Spellings hasn’t done enough to protect the Silent Sam Confederate statue at UNC Chapel Hill.

Various board members, mostly registered Republicans appointed by state lawmakers, on Thursday bypassed the agenda to suggest other controversial ideas such as lowering tuition and fees (already among the nation’s lowest), reorganizing Spellings’ staff (she arrived less than two years ago), discouraging chancellors from attending the board’s meetings and moving system headquarters from Chapel Hill to a less bluish Triangle city. (But why not Kinston?).

One can only imagine how former presidents Bill Friday, Erskine Bowles and Dick Spangler would have dealt with such arrogance. But the current board includes politicians and lobbyists skilled at raising hot-button issues that appeal to their passionate base. Gone are the days of business-oriented leadership that, most of the time, studied issues methodically and in a moderate spirit.

Some more veteran members urged caution. “It would seem that we are blurring the lines between policy and management, and I think this, long term, is a recipe for chaos,” said member Joe Knott, a Raleigh lawyer with strong conservative credentials. “We are not equipped to run this institution.”

It’s important to remember the big picture: The UNC System is one of the state’s biggest businesses and a critical factor in economic development. A bond offering filed this week by UNC Charlotte reminded me that lots happens despite the politicization of higher ed.

Some details about UNC Charlotte included in the bond sale material:

  • About 29,000 students are enrolled this year, up from 26,500 three years ago. It’s the fastest growing of the system’s 17 campuses and is slated to reach 35,000.
  • Half of the total system’s enrollment growth between 2009-16 occurred at UNCC.
  • Still, about 70 fewer students matriculated in 2017 than in each of the previous two years.
  • State appropriations for UNCC jumped by $34 million, or 17%, from 2015 to 2017. The total was $234 million last year.
  • Operating expenses totaled about $540 million last year, with operating revenue of $314 million. The state made up most of the balance.
  • Total debt outstanding is $485 million, payable through 2046.
  • Tuition and fees for in-state undergrad students have increased about $800 a year, or 14%, to $6,973 since 2014.
  • The combined endowment is about $180 million.
  • Average SAT scores in reading and math reached record levels this year, with an average of 1178.

The university wants to sell $81 million of bonds to renovate a 500-bed residence hall and build a 140,000-square-foot gym with lots of amenities. Citigroup is the lead manager, while Charlotte law firm Robinson Bradshaw is legal adviser.

No doubt considerable “fat” exists in the UNC System budget, and much else needs scrutiny, which gives the Board of Governors plenty to do. Let’s hope their focus returns to the important stuff — even if it is not nearly as entertaining as talking about Silent Sam or the intentions of civil rights professors.

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