McCrory's call to alter higher education gets angry response

jstancill@newsobserver.comJanuary 29, 2013 

  • Top majors at UNC-Chapel Hill Most popular majors of current undergraduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill: Biology: 2,101 Journalism and Mass Communication: 1,054 Exercise and Sport Science: 1,046 Economics: 998 Political Science: 958 Psychology: 945 Chemistry: 732 Global Studies: 729 Communication Studies: 715 Business Administration: 660 History: 583 English: 581 Nursing: 539

Gov. Pat McCrory said Tuesday he wants to change the way higher education is funded in North Carolina, focusing more on careers for graduates and away from academic pursuits “that have no chance of getting people jobs.”

The remarks came in a national radio interview with conservative talk show host Bill Bennett, former President Reagan’s education secretary. The breezy, 10-minute interview, in which the Republican governor touched on hot-button issues, elicited a swift, angry response Tuesday from faculty and others.

McCrory declined to be interviewed about the detaill. By day’s end, his staffers were trying to temper his remarks.

“This was not meant to be a personal attack on UNC,” said spokeswoman Crystal Feldman. “Gov. McCrory did not mean to tarnish UNC’s reputation.”

On the show, McCrory said “educational elite” had taken over, offering courses that have no path to jobs. He said he instructed his staff Monday to draft legislation that could alter the state money that universities and community colleges receive “not based on how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.” (Listen to the audio here.)

The governor joined Bennett in criticizing certain academic areas, such as gender studies and philosophy. When Bennett made a crack about women’s and gender studies at nationally ranked UNC-Chapel Hill, McCrory said, “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

In an apparent contradiction, McCrory, who was a political science and education major at the private Catawba College, said he does believe in a liberal arts education.

UNC system faculty argued that higher education is about more than job skills.

Altha Cravey, an associate professor of geography at UNC-CH, said she thinks it’s clear McCrory has already made up his mind about which programs have value and which don’t.

“I don’t think that’s the governor’s job,” she said. “He was elected to represent all the taxpayers. He was not elected to decide what has intellectual value and what does not.”

Cravey said a national push for performance-based funding in higher education rewards programs that provide immediate jobs while undercutting the liberal arts and humanities programs.

Andrew Perrin, a UNC-CH sociology professor, said McCrory’s comments show a “fundamental misunderstanding” of the purpose of higher education.

“The reality is that nobody has a clear sense of what good jobs will require 10, 20, or 30 years down the road,’ he said. “A strong, diverse and challenging liberal arts education like the one we provide at Chapel Hill is the best possible resource for dealing with the reality of uncertain futures and the changing economy, society and world.”

Board set to adopt plan

McCrory’s comments came a week before the UNC system’s Board of Governors is due to adopt a five-year strategy that aims to increase the percentage of the state’s population with a four-year degree and to target money to certain research fields that could stimulate North Carolina’s economy. The plan also will stress “performance funding” that provides incentives to campuses to improve productivity and graduation rates.

Faculty have worried that the plan could de-emphasize liberal arts education, though business leaders advising UNC have hammered the theme that broad education promotes essential critical thinking and problem solving skills in today’s job market.

UNC President Tom Ross said in a statement that the system’s proposals set the right direction for the university and the state.

“The University’s value to North Carolina should not be measured by jobs filled alone,” Ross’ statement said. He said the university system is committed to working with McCrory and the Republican-led legislature to develop the well-educated and skilled talent pool that North Carolina needs to compete and win.

“Our campuses are committed to academic quality and to graduating students who are adaptable, creative, innovative, and equipped to succeed in the workforce and to conduct the cutting-edge research that enables North Carolina to develop, attract, and retain industry, businesses, and good-paying jobs,” Ross said.

On the campaign trail and since taking office, McCrory has made a point to emphasize vocational education that teaches skills. But his comments in the radio interview went beyond his message on the campaign trail, both in substance and tone.

Late Tuesday, aides said McCrory’s comprehensive education policy is still being crafted. It will examine all aspects, from pre-K to K-12 to community colleges and universities, spokesman Chris Walker said, adding that the university funding idea is just one idea of many.

“It’s part of an overall, overarching strategy to say, ‘We need to look at all options to get people back to work,’” Walker said.

Tillis: ‘Measure results’

McCrory has allies in the legislature who also want to make changes in higher education. House Speaker Thom Tillis echoed McCrory’s comments Tuesday, telling reporters that lawmakers want to “measure results” when it comes to universities in North Carolina. As for liberal arts courses, Tillis said they are important to a point.

“I obviously believe a well-rounded education is a very important part of what we produce out of university systems and community college systems, and that will necessarily involve a focus on liberal arts to an extent,” Tillis said. “But at the end of the day, you have to get students aligned with the skills necessary to do the job.”

McCrory spoke of mismatches in the current economy. He said North Carolina still has the fifth highest unemployment rate, yet employers can’t find workers with the right skills.

“To me that means we have a major disconnect between the education establishment and commerce,” he said to Bennett. “So I’m going to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate with debt.”

Later in the interview, he said, “Right now I’m looking for engineers, I’m looking for technicians, I’m looking for mechanics.”

Karey Harwood, associate professor of religious studies and women’s and gender studies at N.C. State, said the vocational focus is short sighted.

“I don’t know what kinds of jobs McCrory wishes for UNC graduates, but his comments certainly suggest that he has low expectations for UNC students and for the state of North Carolina, which is disappointing — and insulting,” Harwood said.

Women vs. men

McCrory also zeroed in on the fact that men are underrepresented in the state’s community college system.

“Most people don’t realize that two-thirds of my students are women,” McCrory said. “Most of them are either going into health care or taking junior college programs, when in fact, I’ve got a lot of unemployed men who typically go into technology or mechanics or welding or something. If they do, they can get six-figure pay right now but instead they’re on unemployment.”

A community college system spokeswoman said about 61 percent of the system’s curriculum students are women, and of those, about 60 percent major in arts and sciences or health care programs.

Bennett, who earned a PhD in philosophy from the University of Texas and once led the National Endowment for the Humanities, poked fun at his own field and asked, “How many PhDs in philosophy do I need to subsidize?”

“You and I agree,” McCrory added.

The governor also used the academic scandal at UNC-CH involving athletes to drive his point.

“It’s even hit our athletic departments. Sad to say, at Carolina, our great basketball program, they took Swahili on a night study course where they didn’t have to do any work and got B-pluses,” McCrory said. “What are we teaching these courses for if they are not going to help get a job.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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