Rumors are par for the course in politics. Often, they’re floated to unsuspecting couriers to sway opinion about this or that issue.
They may or may not be true, but the chatter around them gives credence to their message. One such rumor is now making its way around Raleigh and the rest of the state: Speaker Tim Moore is apparently interested in taking over as president of the University of North Carolina system, which encompasses 17 campuses across the state.
In no uncertain terms, political scandal has been the norm under Republican leadership of the UNC System. Decent leaders were forced out for no particular reason, except perhaps partisan affiliation. Tom Ross, system president from 2011-2016, was relieved from duty with the following statement from the Board of Governors: “The board believes President Ross has served with distinction, that his performance has been exemplary, and that he has devoted his full energy, intellect and passion to fulfilling the duties and responsibilities of his office. This decision has nothing to do with President Ross’ performance or ability to continue in the office.”
Then why fire him? It’s hard to conjure any reasonable explanation apart from party politics. Ross’ replacement on the board came in the form of Margaret Spellings, former Secretary of Education for George W. Bush — obviously, a Republican.
But the dysfunction continued even with a member of the party running the system.
Spellings lasted only three years, retiring before the end of her tenure earlier this year. Tensions rose between the Board of Governors and leaders of the various institutions, including the flagship in Chapel Hill. The tendency to micromanage university leadership, instead of allowing each institution to act in its own best interests, has hobbled the university system.
Enter Moore. With all of the questionable practices of the Board of Governors to this point, his appointment as university president would almost be fitting. It’s the logical conclusion of a years-long attempt to dismantle the higher education system in North Carolina that has for decades set us apart in the South.
For what it’s worth, Speaker Moore has discredited suggestions that he wants the job. That’s offset, somewhat, by remarks from Harry Smith. Smith just resigned as Board of Governors chairman this year and is now resigning from the board itself.
“In my opinion, I strongly feel like Tim is interested in the job,” he said.
Smith ought to have some idea of Moore’s intentions, since he helps to fund his ambitions.
Smith has made thousands of dollars in contributions both to Moore and Phil Berger, and he’s not alone in opening his wallet. Numerous members of the Board of Governors are prolific political donors, with thousands of dollars pouring into the coffers of familiar North Carolina politicos: Thom Tillis, Dan Forest, Pat McCrory, Tim Moore and Phil Berger. Political donations are free speech, but it does at least raise the question of patronage.
Who is more likely to be appointed to a prestigious Board of Governors seat: a qualified non-donor or someone that has cut checks worth thousands of dollars?
Given Moore’s history of ushering through donors and conservative ideologues onto the Board of Governors, we should question whether the same folks would be evenhanded in their efforts to fill the position if he were up for consideration.
North Carolina’s higher education system has been resilient even under duress from within, but sustained efforts to undermine it will prevail if the current trajectory persists.
Kirk Kovach is a native North Carolinian interested in writing about politics, communication and culture.