DURHAM – As we embark on the recruitment of Amazon, it’s important to remember an important history lesson.

There’s no question our local universities played a critical role both in building Research Triangle Park and attracting major employers like GlaxoSmithKline to the Triangle.  They continue to be our biggest asset in attracting these major companies.

To continue that momentum, we need clear lines of authority at our public universities and within the system that governs them.

Our Tier 1 public research universities, UNC Chapel Hill and NC State University, are leaders in the nation and world in cutting-edge research and discovery.  Through their faculties and those who want to associate with them, they have brought North Carolina a brain trust of thought leaders that is unsurpassed anywhere.

These great institutions need the autonomy to be nimble, flexible and competitive in a 21st century world.  Together, they bring more than $1 billion of research funding into North Carolina every year.  Each of these dollars gets leveraged nine times into our state’s economy with the ancillary business they foster.  These institutions need to be free of partisan political influence from the UNC Board of Governors to continue their amazing work.

The University of North Carolina System has a promising new leader with national stature in President Margaret Spellings. And she clearly “gets it” when it comes to the need for continued access and affordability, as well as completion of degrees.

Spellings assembled – and the UNC Board of Governors unanimously adopted – a strategic plan that calls for new “on-ramps,” as she calls them, for more students to merge with higher education and earn the degrees that are increasingly required to secure stable jobs.

By 2020, two-thirds of U.S. jobs are projected to require some form of education beyond high school.  We simply must find ways to educate a higher percentage of North Carolina’s work force.

The UNC strategic plan aims to do that, in part by reaching out to nontraditional populations – rural, first-generation and minority students, or “part-way home” students with some college but no degree – using unconventional methods.

The proper role for boards of large institutions – be they public or corporate – is to set policy and then allow administrators the freedom to carry out that policy and hold them accountable for the results.

The Board of Governors needs to do just that with Spellings: Give her the leeway to meet the “Higher Expectations” in that plan for a better-educated North Carolina.

In fact, the Board of Governors and all of us need to support Margaret Spellings in those aspirations and expectations.  Our public universities have helped distinguish North Carolina from other states, and our students’ futures and our shared future as a state depend on it.

Robert Ingram of Durham  is the former Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of Glaxo/Wellcome.  He co-led the merger and integration that formed GlaxoSmithKline.  Roger Perry is the founder and President of East West Partners, which develops mixed-use communities across North Carolina.

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