The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus in April 2018. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

More than 1,100 people, including former top school officials and prominent donors, are calling on leaders of North Carolina’s public universities to stop “meddling and micromanaging” amid a tumultuous, politically charged time in the state.

That call, contained in a petition, was an unusually candid and critical public statement launched by people who have made supporting higher education in the state a personal priority, warning that the universities’ reputations and integrity were endangered.

“The University of North Carolina is at a crossroads and its future is at stake,” the message to state leaders begins. “The UNC System Board of Governors must refrain from meddling and micromanaging. . . . The governance of our university system needs serious reform. We need less political influence and more civic responsibility.

“. . . UNC is our state’s greatest asset. It is our most crucial economic engine. We cannot afford to let politics undermine the future of higher education in North Carolina.”

The chairman of the board of governors, Harry Smith, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Smith told the News & Observer in Raleigh, which first reported the petition Tuesday, that the effort failed to recognize the successes at many campuses, and dismissed it as a “political temper tantrum,” from a “very, very small group.”

Barbara Hyde, a former trustee of UNC-Chapel Hill who is one of the leaders of the effort, disputed that, saying that by Wednesday evening the petition had gained more than 1,000 signatures in 24 hours, and includes people from multiple campuses and seven former members of the board of governors.

The effort is a response from ardent UNC system backers to the abrupt departure of two strong leaders, said Hyde, chairwoman of the Hyde Family Foundation and a recipient of UNC-Chapel Hill’s prestigious Morehead-Cain scholarship. “The current system is broken,” Hyde said. It’s not just a local matter but one of national importance, she said, because the school began the country’s cherished tradition of public higher education.

The most visible symbol of the rift is the Confederate statue that long stood on the Chapel Hill campus. Silent Sam, as it is known, became a lightning rod in the clashes between the liberal campus and the state universities’ conservative governing body, which is appointed by the state legislature.

“That monument is a metaphor of the political divide that affects this state and indeed the nation,” said James Moeser, chancellor emeritus of UNC-Chapel Hill. “That’s what we’re seeing playing out: extreme partisan politics on the board of governors. That’s something that’s unprecedented in North Carolina,” where board members traditionally checked their politics at the door, he said. Concern began when a system president was forced out in 2016 “primarily because he’s a Democrat,” Moeser said, and was replaced by a well-known Republican, Margaret Spellings.

She resigned partway through her tenure.

“There are two issues here: partisanship and micromanagement,” Moeser said.

Silent Sam was toppled by protesters at the beginning of this academic year. The statue has long angered those who say it symbolizes the racist past and has no place at the state flagship campus. Supporters herald it as a historical memorial to students who died in the Civil War.

The board of governors ordered university leaders to come up with a plan to preserve the bronze soldier statue.

In January, Carol Folt, who was chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill at the time, ordered the remnants of Silent Sam removed from campus, and announced she would resign at the end of the academic year.

The board of governors asked her to leave by the end of the month.

That suggested to many people that the board did not have the best interests of the university at heart, said Edwin Fisher, a professor in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill who advocated for the removal of Silent Sam and worries the board of governors’ decisions will deter faculty and students from choosing the school. “It takes a long time to build up a university. It can be degraded very quickly,” Fisher said.

He noted that supporters of governance restructuring for the 17-institution system included business leaders and Republicans. “We can disagree on all sorts of things, but we agree on the need for a strong University of North Carolina,” Fisher said.

Last week, Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, wrote on the Higher Education Works Foundation website, “As a proud alumna of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), I have watched with dismay as the UNC Board of Governors (BOG) has plunged one of the world’s most respected institutions of higher learning into a crisis. This is the institution that in recent years garnered two Nobel Prizes for its faculty, helped sequence the human genome, developed new models for human disease and new drugs to fight cancer. The BOG has driven out three distinguished leaders in recent years: President Thomas Ross in 2016, President Margaret Spellings in 2018, and Chancellor Carol Folt in 2019.”

She wrote that the boards of public universities have a responsibility to ensure they empower the institutions’ leadership, not undermine it. UNC is not an outlier, she argued: In the past decade, universities in Virginia, Texas, Oregon and elsewhere “have struggled to maintain their identity and mission, provide the highest quality education, manage internal conflict, and combat challenges to their institutional autonomy."

David Green, a professor at the North Carolina Central University School of Law, is chairman of the UNC System Faculty Assembly and sits ex officio on two board of governors’ committees. He said he thinks the board’s leadership realizes it should have a limited role in campus decisions. But the board has more than two dozen members bringing different perspectives and priorities to the table, he said. Green has not signed the petition.

The most high-profile incidents have been in Chapel Hill, Green said, but “the conversation about the appropriate role of the board of governors and the campuses is being spread throughout the system.”