UNC system plots new strategy for an uncertain future

jstancill@newsobserver.comAugust 10, 2012 

  • UNC wants stronger bonds with China The UNC system wants to recruit more Chinese students, offer Chinese language courses to students at all UNC campuses and have stronger partnerships with universities in China. The system has developed goals for increasing interest and instruction about China. A contingent of UNC leaders traveled to China and Taiwan in March for tours of Chinese universities. If UNC students engage more with China and the Chinese language, they will graduate globally ready and better prepared for the job market, UNC officials say. UNC campuses already have myriad partnerships and links to Chinese universities. Still, of the UNC students who study abroad, 49 percent go to western Europe, while just 3.6 percent go to China. Only 1 percent of UNC system students were enrolled in Chinese classes in 2011-12. UNC leaders have talked about offering a course systemwide on Chinese history and culture – a beginner’s look at the emerging superpower. They want to make Chinese language courses available to any student at a UNC system school, even though some campuses now offer no instruction. The goal could be accomplished with a combination of online instruction and face-to-face classes. There is also talk about ways to recruit more Chinese students to UNC campuses to diversify classrooms and give North Carolina students more international exposure. Nearly 2,000 Chinese students enrolled at UNC in the 2011-12 year. They disproportionately study science and technology disciplines, according to a UNC report, and are more likely than native-born students to start businesses if they stay in the United States upon graduation. One idea on the table is to stop counting international students in the pool of out-of-state students in the UNC system, which limits out-of-staters to 18 percent on each campus. Loosening the cap has been a controversial idea in the past, because state taxpayers want to protect university seats for North Carolinians. But allowing more international students in is an important goal, said Paul Fulton, a UNC board member and former UNC-Chapel Hill business school dean. “The thing you’ve got to appreciate is the value they bring to the educational experience,” Fulton said. Staff writer Jane Stancill

— The UNC system will seek the help of business leaders to formulate a new strategy for educating a changing population in an uncertain economic climate.

Leaders hope to have a plan ready by January, when a new governor and legislature take office. In the next few months, a committee made up of business, education and political leaders will put together their ideas for how the UNC system should deal with the challenges ahead.

Peter Hans, who was elected chairman of the UNC Board of Governors in June, said the panel will tackle the major questions facing UNC and higher education in general, such as how resources are allocated and whether students are getting an adequate education for a globally competitive climate.

“Will our students be prepared for the workforce and for life?” Hans asked the board on Friday. “How can we best serve our state and her people in a rapidly changing world?”

The group has not been appointed yet, but board member Fred Eshelman, a Wilmington pharmaceutical executive, is expected to take a leading role in the effort.

On Thursday, the panel heard from John Wynne of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, a coalition of business leaders who helped push a plan called “Grow By Degrees.” The strategy includes a focus on science, technology, engineering and health education, with the goal of graduating an additional 100,000 students from Virginia’s community colleges and universities in the next 15 years.

The council also succeeded in persuading the Virginia governor and legislature to increase funding for higher education in the next two years after a period of reductions. Wynne told UNC leaders that the group’s focus was not just on gaining more state money but on strategic investment, with an eye toward efficiency and innovation.

He said getting committed business leaders on board was key to the Virginia effort, as well as educating policymakers on the shifting economic landscape.

“Change is coming,” said Wynne, a retired media executive with Landmark Communications. “We better get ready for it.”

That message was echoed by Jim Johnson, a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Johnson offered the board a sobering look at demographic trends that present new challenges for North Carolina, which has an aging population with a future labor force that won’t be able to support and replace retiring workers, especially in many poor counties. He presented statistics that showed the “browning” of North Carolina, where Hispanics made up 60 percent of the public school enrollment increases from 2000 to 2009, while black students represented 32 percent of the growth. “This is a profound change in our population, and what it means is the people who walk in our schools in the future will be dramatically different than those who walk in our schools today,” he said.

Men fall behind

At the same time, a gender gap has left men falling behind in educational attainment and ultimately in the labor force. In 2010 in the UNC system, 44 percent of students were male; in historically black universities, the percentage was 37 percent.

Education is necessary to compete in the job market, Johnson said, but it’s not enough anymore. Today’s worker needs to have analytical skills, entrepreneurial acumen, cultural understanding, contextual intelligence and flexibility, he said.

“You need something else in your toolkit today besides the basics if you’re going to thrive,” Johnson said.

His recommendations for North Carolina’s public universities were: becoming more involved in K-12 education; improving male outcomes; embracing immigrants; forging stronger ties with business; plugging students into the “freelance” entrepreneurial economy; and developing specific plans for UNC campuses.

‘A strategic plan’

UNC President Tom Ross said the demographic trends identify some directions for UNC to move forward.

“There’s a potential huge shortage of people for the workforce in the United States as the population ages and the birth rate slows,” Ross said. “What do we do? How can we plan for that as a university for North Carolina, so our economy does not stagnate because of the lack of a positive workforce?”

Hans said he wants a specific plan to come out of the process. “I’m hoping we can put together a strategic plan that is more than a collection of pleasantries – it’s meaningful and measurable,” Hans said.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service