Call him Erskine, everybody else does. That’s how he wants it and that’s how it is now between the new UNC system president, his staff and the UNC Board of Governors, the 35-member body that guides the university system. In a linguistic contrast to the administration of former President Molly Broad, who stepped down last year after nine years on the job, the formal titles are gone. Like the language, the feel is very different. To the Board of Governors and the vast majority of the superstructure of North Carolina, Erskine Bowles is one of their own.
But don’t let the informality fool you. It is sink or swim time under the roof of the General Administration building in Chapel Hill. Since taking office, Bowles has trimmed more than a dozen positions–most of them at the top of the food chain. He’s promised to cut 10 percent of the operating cost of the administration–$1.1 million–and is building a streamlined team.
The cost-cutting and efficiency moves in the home office are just a hint of what’s to come for the system as a whole. Right out of the blocks, Bowles formed the President’s Advisory Committee on Efficiency to look for ways to save money and tighten operations. The PACE effort is scheduled to issue recommendations in October, allowing for the ideas to make it into this year’s budget cycle. In the world of academia, where the rate of change is often glacial, it’s an example of how the former Small Business Administration director, Wall Street CEO and White House chief of staff doesn’t mess around.
Last week, Bowles also introduced a plan for greater academic accountability–a range of measures worked out with each campus to look at graduation and dropout rates. Each campus will have to show improvement, he says.
“I believe in accountability,” Bowles says. “I want people to hold us accountable.”
Even after two long days of board meetings, Bowles, who has been in constant motion, seems tireless. A tall man more often in shirtsleeves than not, he speaks quickly and emphatically about what he sees as the critical mission of the university.
The accountability will be tailored for each campus, Bowles said.
“It’s definitely not one-size-fits all,” he says. “But I guarantee you every single school is going to be pushed to improve their retention, improve their graduation.”
William Friday, the first system president, says he is not surprised to see the new president take charge so fast. Bowles can move quickly and confidently because he was such a natural for the job. “I believe the man and the institution have met,” Friday says. “He’s on his way.”
Like his father, Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles, Erskine has had more success in business than politics. Bowles made two consecutive unsuccessful runs for U.S. Senate, losing to Republicans Elizabeth Dole in 2002 and Richard Burr in 2004. But his experience on the campaign trail and as a key negotiator for President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 1998 gives him acumen for politics–state and federal–that is all but unmatched in North Carolina.
Friday says Bowles didn’t pursue the job to bolster his ego or his résumé.
“I’ve known him all of his life. Erskine Bowles understands that this is hi chance to be of tremendous service to the people of North Carolina.”
While getting the system running efficiently is important, the top item on the list is retooling the university for a changing state.
Bowles has been emphasizing UNC’s role in public service. He says he’s determined to keep the university and the state connected–that the university should help tackle the state’s challenges. UNC, he told the Board of Governors last week, has to turn out more top-level math and science teachers to respond to the Leandro ruling and more nurses to address the state’s critical shortage of health care workers.
New board Chairman Jim Phillips says the board understands the need to reconnect.
“If the things that we’re doing aren’t positively impacting the state and its people, there’s no need for us,” Phillips says. “Everything we look at–everything we do–we should look at through the prism of ‘How is this impacting the state of North Carolina?’”
To that end, over the next year, Bowles and Phillips are planning a series of town hall meetings around the state–a sort of listening tour–to hear what people and business leaders feel the university should be doing. It’s a method Bowles used as head of the SBA and the state’s Rural Prosperity Taskforce to make them more relevant.
In tow, Bowles says, will be the best minds from the campuses to bring them into dialogue with local communities. “We have the greatest experts in the country,” he says. “Let’s use them.”
One part of the system that could change is the Board of Governors itself. A recent 400-page report by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, the most exhaustive look ever at UNC governance, makes a strong case for improvements and supports the move to strengthen the service mission and focus the board on policy and accountability.
In an indication that things are headed further in that direction, Phillips has drafted a list of powers he’d like the governors to cede to the president and has invited other members to review and add to the list over the next month.
The board, he said in a recent meeting, should shed some of the fiscal and personnel tasks and focus on policy.
The Board of Governors also plans to pay greater attention to the selection of campus trustees, an area the Public Policy Research report says is in sore need of attention.
For most of her tenure, Molly Broad battled an effort from within and without the university to separate UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State from the rest of the system. Backed by powerful allies in the legislature, the move toward campus autonomy threatened to unleash the kind of funding free-for-alls in the General Assembly that led to the creation of a consolidated system in the first place.
The autonomy push and its accompanying flirtation with a two-tiered or three-tiered California-like system are likely to fade under Bowles, who has strong ties with both State and Carolina and the kind of confidence among their backers that Broad never enjoyed.
Bowles says he intends to keep a firm grip on the message taken to Raleigh. He recently replaced both his top state and federal liaisons, hiring NCSU lobbyist Andy Willis, a former lead fiscal analyst to the N.C. Senate, to handle the General Assembly, and Miles Lackey, a former aide to Dole, to serve in Washington, D.C.
The accountability and especially the efficiency efforts are part of the message to legislators, Bowles says, that resources aren’t going to waste–something the system has to prove if it hopes to see a repeat of the kind of record support the General Assembly showed this year.
“We have to prove that we’re using [state funding] wisely and that it means something to the state,” he says. “We’re going to do that. We’re going to make the sale.”