CHAPEL HILL — 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.