Once again, the states public universities are poised for a round of self-study, a rethink of strategic directions for the next five years.
Its a worthy undertaking, and the UNC system Board of Governors announced it with considerable fanfare. The committee that will lead this effort includes not only a handful of chancellors and university officials, but also many of the states top politicians and business leaders. They are meant to ponder the universitys role in the broadest possible sense.
Which makes it strikingly sad to read the news release trumpeting this effort, which mentions economic needs and work force competitiveness four times in three paragraphs. And yet the words student, knowledge, learning or even citizen appear nowhere.
After more than 200 years, the nations best public university has arrived at a remarkably narrow conception of its own mission.
When William R. Davie introduced the bill to found the University of North Carolina in 1789 at about the same moment that North Carolina ratified the U.S. Constitution, incidentally he provided an instructive preamble.
It is the indispensable duty of every Legislature to consult the Happiness of a rising generation and endeavour to fit them for an honourable discharge of the social duties of life, by paying the strictest attention to their education, he wrote.
The happiness and social duties of a rising generation encompass a far broader ideal than the job security of the states degree-holders.
The universitys founders aimed to create free citizens, to share civilizations best knowledge with those who would build a new and vibrant commonwealth. Our current leaders seem content to optimize a work force. This kind of thinking is both uninspired and ineffective, and it leads to poor public policy.
No one is opposed to a university that operates more efficiently and embraces broadly defined challenges. But attempts to meet short-term economic needs or turn the states colleges into job-training programs are doomed to failure. They also represent an unwarranted lowering of our horizons, a sad echo of what these institutions were meant to be.
Higher education is essential to business for its knowledge-giving power, wrote UNC President Edward Kidder Graham. I hasten to explain that I do not mean for its window displays of the narrow exponents of technical education experts in the analysis of cotton-seed oil and iron ore. For these clerkly tasks, men are needed and the colleges may turn them out as byproducts; but the colleges will make no great claim on our present civilization, even in its most commercial phase, by being absorbed in making them.
Grahams point as valid today as it was in 1909 is that higher education ought to do as the term implies and educate in the highest knowledge. Not just for the sake of learning, though that is enough, but because that sort of knowledge is economically timeless. Cotton-seed oil specialists are in low demand, but reading, writing and critical thinking the ability to synthesize knowledge, and master steadily widening fields of knowledge and business, in Grahams century-old words remain vital as ever.
None of this is to suggest that business has no role in education, or that the university ought to be insulated from the economic realities of our age. From the beginning, North Carolinas public colleges were fretting over competition with rising powers worries about competitiveness with England and Germany figure prominently in 19th century speeches and engaged with the states needs.
But those needs are greater than a rising tax base, more important than a hiring pool.
By all means, train doctors, teachers, engineers and researchers. Ponder the challenges of the green economy and keep a wary eye on whatever rising powers threaten our commercial well-being. But do not shy from proclaiming the broader ideals that have defined this place for centuries. Progress social, political, scientific and, yes, economic depends on an educated citizenry, not just a qualified work force.
If the public university cannot articulate for itself a greater role than that of an enormous human resources department, then we are in for lean times indeed.
Eric Johnson, who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008, is a former Daily Tar Heel writer and editor who covered the UNC Tomorrow effort.