Interviews with NC State Trustees

June 12, 2009
By Cherry Crayton

Two members of the NC State Board of Trustees — Suzanne Gordon ’75 and Robert B. Jordan III ’54 — answered questions from NC State magazine about what they might have done differently and where they go from here following the resignations of Chancellor James. L. Oblinger and Provost Larry Nielsen.

Suzanne Gordon ’75, second vice chair of the NC State Board of Trustees, answered these questions by e-mail Wednesday. She’s chief information officer and vice president of information technology at SAS.

Looking back, is there anything you think the board could have done differently?
I believe both the Board of Trustees and the university’s lawyers need to be more aware of how any action might in any way be or appear to be a violation of ethics. Retrospectively, the board could have been more aggressive in questioning the background process that led to the hire [of Mary Easley].

What steps will the board take to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again?
This topic will be discussed at the next set of board meetings [scheduled for July 14 via phone and Sept. 11]. One idea is to appoint an ethics “watchdog” board member or committee.

How does the board plan to address concerns raised about the salary packages and the Retreat to Faculty policy?
These longer retreat packages were initiated in much better economic times. When the economy changed we definitely should have been more sensitive and downsized the retreat packages in the same way that many programs and departments at NC State have downsized financially in the current economic climate.  The board definitely needs to be more involved in these types of issues and this would fall under the purview of the Academic and Affairs Committee.  I believe you will see reviews of all retreat packages added to this committee’s duties.  It’s something that will come up at the next set of board meetings.

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Robert B. Jordan III ’54 , chair of the NC State Board of Trustees, spoke with us Thursday afternoon. Jordan is president of Jordan Lumber and Supply and was lieutenant governor of North Carolina from 1985 to 1989. This is an edited transcript .

What are the Board of Trustees’ top priorities now?
First let me say that all this publicity has certainly bothered NC State alumni and I’m sure maybe the general public from the standpoint as to whether we’re spending money wisely. But in no way has it detracted from the fact of what this university means and what’s going on there—the training of students, the research and what Centennial Campus means to North Carolina. So the university is in real good shape in doing the things it’s doing.

What’s evolved here is that [the Board of Trustees] is looking at some of the things that should have been done differently, and what’s evolved here is a reassessment of how the Board of Trustees is going to react and how information is going to be shared. . . . I’m worried about getting our image straightened out and our procedures straightened out, but I’m really optimistic about where the university is going.

What could have been done differently?

Well, remember, we’ve had a growing university system. [The UNC System] was formed in 1971 when it went from six universities to 16. The [UNC System] administration has had more and more to do. So some of the things we do are based on the guidelines set by the administration, and other things you do on campus, you have in-house authority to hire a provost and draw up contracts. Yet, there are some guidelines out there. I frankly think there is so much going on that some of these guidelines were not fully understood and others were not followed to the T.

What has the Board of Trustees learned from what has happened and how might that shape how it moves forward?
What I’ve learned is that we’ve got a big university, and we’ve got to be sure that there is visibility to what is going on and that when we start dealing with money issues, particularly, or anything that costs money, that trustees need to fully understand what’s happening. And there [needs to be] involvement of trustees on various committees. I don’t know how that ought to be done or how you trigger that, but our goal is to be sure that things like this don’t happen in the future. We feel also that there should be uniform [policies and procedures] across the [UNC] System.

What are specific things the Board of Trustees may look at so something like this won’t happen again?
I think for sure that one of the committees [will have] the [“watchdog”] responsibility and information that they see will be available to the rest of the trustees.

How does the Board of Trustees plan to address concerns raised about the salary packages for Larry Nielsen and James L. Oblinger and their opportunity to return to faculty positions at NC State?
Oblinger’s [exit] contract was worked out between him and [UNC System] President [Erskine] Bowles, and as far as I know, that is by the guidelines. So Oblinger’s contract goes through President Bowles. . . .From there on down, the provost and all faculty are hired by the chancellor.  These [exit] contracts [for those hired by the chancellor] go back to the employment contract signed when they first came on. And these exit contracts are supposedly in these original employment contracts. That’s where we have to start, and we need to review those employment contracts already there. And I’m not saying this to frighten anyone, but at least we need to know what’s in the works and we need to establish a new standard we can agree on.  . . .

About three weeks ago I asked for a study on employment contracts.  So . . . we’re in the process of looking at that right now, and they will be changed. We will work with the Board of Governors [on] what’s going to be the basis of termination contracts, and there should be some additional standards set. I think there needs to be disclosure within each Board of Trustees, not that the trustees would have the authority (the Chancellors would still have that), but the Board would have the chance to see the contracts and comment on it and thereby impact on what will happen. I think that because you have disclosure to start with, that will take care of problems.

On [Nielsen’s] contract, [Chancellor Jim Woodward] will be going back and looking at that. What the outcome is, I don’t know, but [he is] looking at it. It shouldn’t be long [before we know the outcome]. [Editor’s Note: The N&O reports this morning that Woodward has made a recommendation to the Board of Trustees about Nielsen’s contract and an announcement should come soon.]

Some people are concerned that the recent events will affect the Legislature’s decisions about budget cuts. What impact do you think the recent events will have on budget decisions?
First off, we’re very much into the budget cuts. It looks like we’re going to deal with at least a 10 percent budget cut and it could be more than that. We have to be prepared for that, not only at the beginning of the year, but as you get into the year, that if they come back and ask for funds back, you have to look ahead enough to say “What if?”

And I don’t think there’s an institution in the system that is as respected as more, as far as the Legislature is concerned, as NC State. . . . My impression is that Chancellor [Jim] Woodward has an outstanding relationship with the Legislature and he has been talking to members in the Legislature. My experience with the Legislature is that they are not going to take anything out on NC State because of a bad decision or two by people. . . .

Tell us about Chancellor Jim Woodward.
Chancellor Woodward is coming in like gangbusters. He is in charge, and he was in charge Tuesday morning. He is the chancellor who is acting, not just a chancellor. And as I understand, he is making a good impression. I have known him for a long time, and I continue to be extremely impressed by him. We’re very fortunate since this change is happening—I’m not saying I’m happy the change is happening, but since it is happening—that he’s here. He’s very smart, very deliberate. He knows this institution. And as he has said publically, this is the only institution in the U.S., the only institution anywhere, that he would have considered coming back to do what he’s doing right here because he loves this place and believes in it. [He] is going to make good things happen.

How long will Woodward be interim chancellor?
It’s hard to tell. It won’t happen real quick; it’s a process.

What’s your message to alumni?*
This university is no less of the university it was a month ago, two months ago. It’s still on the rise, and I just ask the alumni to hang in there and keep the faith because whatever little things were happening that they didn’t like that they heard, we’re going to get those corrected.

*This response comes from a brief interview we did with Bob Jordan Monday afternoon following a press conference announcing Oblinger’s resignation and the termination of Mary Easley’s contract.

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One Response to “Interviews with NC State Trustees”

  1. Scott Wallinger says:

    I live a distance from Raleigh so I knew nothing of this until communictions came from the Alumni Association. There may have been some lapses in judgment, but that in no way undermines the core competence of the University itself. My impression is that the school is overreacting to its alumni with its messages to “sell” the school. It’s simple: We had a problem, we’ve taken measures to address it, we have competent leadership, we’re continuing to do our job.

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