Martin: Who and what do you believe?

Last week, two men claimed they had been robbed of about $5 million worth of gold bars they were transporting along I-95 in Wilson County. According to their story, when they pulled over on I-95 to fix their truck or attend to an illness, three armed men appeared, took the gold, tied them up, and sped away.

Do you believe them?

NC Bookwatch by D.G. Martin

NC Bookwatch
by D.G. Martin

If so, you might also believe that the legislature’s plan to carve new districts for the Wake County Board of Commissioners has nothing to do with politics, even though the likely result would change control of the board to the political party that now controls the legislature.

You might believe that the redistricting of the state’s congressional and legislative districts was a non-partisan, public-spirited effort.

You might believe that election law “reforms” made by the legislature to shorten the time to vote and add stringent identification card requirements were not politically motivated, even though the changes lessen the participation of voters who tend to favor the party that opposes the legislature’s current majority.

You might believe that politics played no part in the University of North Carolina Board of Governors’ decision to end the tenure of UNC President Tom Ross.

You might believe that the board’s decision to terminate UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity was not driven by politics.

Partisan political machinations in redistricting and election law changes are nothing new. Not so obvious is the role of politics in public higher education. However, the university’s board of governors is a creature of the legislature that selects every one of its 32 voting members. A board member who displeases the legislative majority will not be selected for another term. Thus board members are understandably responsive to legislative pressure.

If the legislature does not like what the board is doing, it can step in directly to make changes in the university system. In 1963, it passed the notorious Speaker Ban Law that limited free speech on campuses. In 1971, the legislature restructured public higher education and brought all public four-year campuses under one multi-campus university system.

The legislature rules.

Thus, if strong partisan Republican legislators expressed the wish that the president of the university should be someone other than a person selected by the former Democratic controlled board, would the current board have to listen?

Yes.

But they would be uncomfortable simply dismissing an able president with whom they had worked well. So they could have said, “Give us some time. We’ll get him to step down at the end of the year when he reaches 65.”

If that was the plan, Ross messed it up when he refused to go along, leaving the board leadership unable to give a reason for its action.

Similarly, Republicans in the legislature chafed at the Poverty Center with its origins in the political career of former Democratic Senator John Edwards and led by Gene Nichol, whose regular newspaper columns attacked the direction of the legislature and the Republican governor.

The legislature ordered a study of centers at every public university, but the board knew which one the legislature wanted gone.

The legislature rules and the board listens.

But there is a trade-off that can be very positive.

The legislature also listens to board members that it has selected and trusts. As they learn about university programs and management, many board members become effective advocates for legislative support. Also, they can act as buffers to slow down or dilute unwise actions the legislature might otherwise take.

Even those who disagree with the board’s recent decisions should resist the temptation to treat board members as enemies or demons.

In the current political situation, board members may be the university community’s best, and only, hope.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information visit www.unctv.org/content/ncbookwatch.

Filed in: Opinion

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