Visitor’s opinion: Bipartisanship is critical to economic development and education in NC

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Editor’s note: Gene McLaurin is Chairman of the Board North Carolina Economic Development Partnership.


Raleigh – It’s no secret that North Carolina is the best state to do business with. In 2022, North Carolina welcomed 151 staffing, development and business expansion projects, for 28,690 new jobs and more than $19 billion in capital investment. Two of these were the largest economic development projects the country had ever seen. Vietnamese electric vehicle and battery company VinFast has announced 7,500 jobs with a $4 billion investment in Chatham County, making it the largest economic development project in the state’s history. Domestic semiconductor manufacturer Wolfspeed announced 1,800 jobs with a $5 billion investment in Siler City, North Carolina, making it the largest economic development project capital investment in the state’s history.

One factor stands out when it comes to what made these and 149 other companies decide to come to North Carolina—our highly educated and diverse workforce.

North Carolina is home to 52 public and private colleges and universities, which enroll more than 330,000 students each year, and there are more students enrolled in historic black North Carolina colleges and universities than any other state in the country. All of these students represent potential employees of one of the companies mentioned earlier or those who are looking at our state now.

Our University of North Carolina system has 16 campuses throughout the state and is consistently ranked among the best values ​​in higher education nationally. And two of the North Carolina system’s schools are Tier I research universities, UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State. To train the workforce of the future, our schools need to adapt and evolve with their students and reflect the diversity of those student bodies, and it starts at the top.

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The UNC system is governed by a Board of Governors (BOG) with each board member appointed by the Republican leadership of the North Carolina General Assembly. Each university’s board of trustees is also appointed by the General Assembly and appointed by them to the BOG, giving the General Assembly complete control over appointments to these institutions’ boards of directors and governance. It wasn’t always like that. Until 2016, the governor also had appointments to various campus boards of trustees, but that was overruled by the General Assembly when Governor Cooper was elected.

There should be healthy disagreement about the impact of these decisions on the functioning of the university system, but what should not be disputed is that boards are less diverse and more partisan. There is only one Democrat serving on the BOG, and women make up only 25% of the board, even though they make up the majority of students.

In November 2022, Governor Cooper called the North Carolina Public Universities Management Committee to meet and make recommendations on best practices for running public universities in the state. The committee’s first work is to evaluate the current University of North Carolina system appointment system, and how it can be strengthened and improved.

For our universities to provide the best possible education for their students and the state’s workforce, the BOG must be more partisan and reflect greater geographic, gender, and ethnic diversity. Bipartisanship allows for more voices at the table, and diversity in thoughts and ideas. And we’ve seen bipartisanship in our state. Take, for example, recent economic development gains. In addition to pointing to our highly educated workforce as the main draw, the companies also pointed to our state’s bipartisanship and how the Governor and members of the General Assembly are working together to seal the deal on projects that will improve the economic well-being and quality of life for North Carolinians for decades to come. Last year we were named the first state in America to do business, and bipartisanship played a huge role in making that happen.

Bipartisanship and diversity serve on the board of directors that I am honored to chair at the North Carolina Economic Development Partnership. I am a Democrat, but I am fortunate to serve with Republicans and Independents from across the state who are focused on the common goal of improving the economic prospects and outcomes of our neighbors.

Bipartisanship for economic development has worked, and it can work for education, but the public needs to play a big role in getting us there.

The North Carolina State University Management Committee holds a series of forums for the public to make their voices heard regarding the governance structure of the UNC system. There are two more opportunities to come and speak, April 4th in Greensboro and April 11th in Durham, and I urge you to come. Bipartisanship is an important part of what makes North Carolina the greatest state in the country. Having representation from all sides, whether in our daily interactions or on a board like BOG, allows us as a community and as a country to be our best and strongest. We can continue to provide this world-class education to our students, who will continue to enhance our state’s economic development potential and provide an excellent quality of life for our residents.

Individuals interested in attending a forum and speaking should contact Minda Watkins at [email protected] at least two days prior to the forum. Individuals can also submit written testimony to this email if they are unable to attend an in-person meeting.

About the author

Gene McLaurin is president of the Swink-Quality Oil Company and chairman of the North Carolina Economic Development Partnership. He is a former state senator from North Carolina (2013-2014) and former mayor of Rockingham (1997-2012).