Dealing from the Wrong Deck (Part 2): The Board of Governors’ $150,000 Liberal Headhunter

October 13, 2015

So how does a university system at a crossroads, in desperate need of a reformer, facing the university’s most important decision in years, and acknowledging a rushed process with little transparency, end up with a bad hand of questionable PC choices for president?

The short answer is the UNC Board of Governors orders a hand dealt from the wrong deck of cards.

The voters who elected a reform-minded governor and a conservative legislature to advance bold, innovative solutions to fix North Carolina’s broken Medicaid program, outdated tax code and ossified infrastructure reasonably expected a similar approach to reforming the UNC System from the Board of Governors.

The state’s constitution gives the legislature the power to determine how the UNC System is governed and to delegate powers to the system’s governing board, so long as the legislature is providing higher education to the citizens of the state at the lowest possible cost:

Sec. 8. Higher education.

The General Assembly shall maintain a public system of higher education, comprising The University of North Carolina and such other institutions of higher education as the General Assembly may deem wise. The General Assembly shall provide for the selection of trustees of The University of North Carolina and of the other institutions of higher education, in whom shall be vested all the privileges, rights, franchises, and endowments heretofore granted to or conferred upon the trustees of these institutions. The General Assembly may enact laws necessary and expedient for the maintenance and management of The University of North Carolina and the other public institutions of higher education.

Sec. 9. Benefits of public institutions of higher education.

The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.

The legislature has chosen to grant the Board of Governor’s extremely broad latitude to manage the UNC System, even exempting it from complying with the same accountability and reporting requirements as other state agencies.

Because of the legislature’s decision to delegate this power, the key to reforming and refocusing the UNC System on its constitutionally-mandated core mission of educating our state’s children at the lowest cost possible rests with the Board of Governors.

And conservative reformers have repeatedly told Board of Governors members the most important step toward reform is choosing the right new president.

You’d think with the stakes this high, the person the Board of Governors hires to lead and guide the search process would be thoroughly vetted. The board would be careful to select a person with a track record of hiring successful reformers – a person who shares their philosophy and goals for improving the university system, right? Surely, the board would hire a person with a resume and track record that gave conservative reformers in the legislature who selected the board confidence they had a dealer who’d throw five aces on the table in the president search.

So reformers could be forgiven for scratching their heads when search committee chairwoman, Joan MacNeill, said this about John Isaacson of Isaacson, Miller, a Boston-based search firm the Board chose to pay $300,000 to guide the process: “We were impressed with the background, the experience, the thoughtfulness and the candor. We felt like there was a very good fit.”

You see, even a cursory review of John Isaacson’s track record would lead conservative reformers to think the board had just hired a guy dealing from a deck of twos and threes – or maybe just Jokers – to try and throw them five aces.

After all, this was the same John Isaacson that helped land noted conservative reformer Gene Nichol, of Moral Monday fame, the president job at William and Mary College (where he failed spectacularly after, among other things, removing the cross from the college’s historic chapel).

While Nichols’ flame out was Isaacson’s most notable disaster, a review of other Isaacson-led searches turns up a lot of PC liberal activists – not conservative reformers.

A quick search of Isaacson’s political giving history exposes his strong liberal philosophical beliefs and shows where his loyalties lie: Fifty-seven donations to Democrats and liberals like Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Howard Dean, Barack Obama, Gabby Giffords and Elizabeth Warren. Not a single donation to a Republican.

Conservative reformers are left to wonder if the UNC Board members described their $300,000 choice to head the most important presidential search in UNC system history as a “very good fit” because they didn’t do their homework, or because they’re more interested in good seats at the ACC Tournament than reforming the UNC system.

Neither possibility is reassuring.