Point of View

Carry on in UNC's proud tradition

November 14, 2012 

The UNC Strategic Planning process has always been an occasion to recommit ourselves to the ideals for which public higher education in North Carolina was established. Today, it appears to have become the occasion for implementing radical changes favored by a handful of individuals.

Against all evidence to the contrary, and against the long and venerable tradition that has made public higher education in North Carolina a model for the nation and the world, the changes being promoted suggest that the widely available, broadly accessible and readily affordable system of higher education we have is an extravagance North Carolina does not need.

Some “leading the charge” for radical change have been repeatedly quoted saying that only 19 percent of North Carolinians holding college degrees need them for their jobs. Perhaps those who don’t understand the aspirations and lives of regular folks might conclude that this proves that a college education is a wasteful expense for police officers, firefighters, carpenters, mechanics, preschool teachers, receptionists, small business owners and many others who don’t “need” a degree for their jobs.

It is doubtful, however, that they would find much agreement from the firefighter with the degree in art history – who also volunteers at the local senior center to lead visits to museums and galleries. Or the print shop owner with the degree in anthropology – who has built a prosperous and respected business because her customers appreciate her interest in their lives and their culture and their faith.

It is also doubtful that those whose commitments have built UNC, and indeed American higher education itself, would agree. The names of some of these people are perhaps familiar enough: Friday, Chase, Graham, Venable, Battle and Caldwell, not to mention Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Adams and Franklin. Most important, however, are those many thousands of North Carolinians, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, native born and immigrant, black, brown, red, yellow and white, who sacrificed so much of their blood and treasure – and for many, life itself – so that their fellow and sister citizens might develop their unique talents and abilities, and use them to make their state a better place.

It is just this sort of popular common sense that informed the commitments of the university’s founders, that has been sustained by many of its favorite sons, like the late Bill Friday, and that has been supported by generations of elected officials of every political stripe. They knew that an educated citizenry was the bulwark of social happiness, economic prosperity, and political liberty.

That is why these ideals are enshrined in our state constitution.

And our predecessors have been proven right, right down to the present. North Carolina colleges and universities have been magnets for entrepreneurial energy and engines of prosperity that cultivate talent and send it to every corner of the state. The institutions of UNC are part of the reason that so many North Carolina cities and towns are listed as among the “best places to live” in America.

This is because we expect our colleges and universities to educate citizens who are adept, adaptable, inventive, creative, motivated and confident in their ability to make a real difference in their communities. Not surprisingly, this is also what the most dynamic job creators today expect from their employees, and from the communities where they invest.

The university system is a major reason why North Carolina has been consistently ranked among the top states for business climate. And our return to the No. 1 spot this year is no doubt due in part to the fact that while other states have slashed their support for public higher education, North Carolina citizens have told their elected officials to hold the line.

Despite all of this history and all of this evidence, the proponents of radical change have somehow failed to grasp what so many thoughtful North Carolinians value most about their university.

Perhaps some of the reformers don’t understand the debates North Carolina has been having since the founding of the university: that the right changes for UNC have to be those our constitution demands, and that is that “knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, libraries, and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

Steven Bachenheimer and Stephen Leonard both teach at UNC-Chapel Hill. Eight children from their respective families have been students in North Carolina public colleges and universities.

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