In the midst of a shifting higher education landscape and a heated political argument about liberal arts versus job training for college students, UNC system leaders will chart the future course of the state’s public universities this week.
The UNC Board of Governors will get its final look Thursday at a blueprint, months in the making, that will guide the strategy for the 17 public campuses through 2018. The board is scheduled to vote on the plan Friday.
The 121-page report’s goals include turning out more graduates more efficiently, investing in several “game changing” research areas, pushing aggressively into online learning and increasing accountability by publishing student outcomes and testing students on what they learn.
But faculty members across the system have raised major concerns about the proposals and have argued for months that they have not had enough representation in the process.
In recent days, 14 faculty governing bodies across the state — including N.C. State University’s faculty senate on Tuesday and UNC Greensboro’s on Wednesday — have passed resolutions opposing elements of the plan. Professors worry that curriculum decisions could be taken out of the hands of faculty in what they say is a top-down approach by the system. They also say faculty should control student assessments and that any national standardized test would be expensive and ineffective.
“The final draft of the strategic plan removes faculty from the role that our accreditation body and the American Association of University Professors call for: faculty control over all curricular matters, including any decisions about class size, programs, research areas, general education and e-learning,” said Sherryl Kleinman, professor of sociology at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Student leaders also have criticized parts of the plan in recent weeks.
Some potential landmines have been removed, including the idea of lifting the 18 percent cap on out-of-state first-year students at North Carolina’s public campuses. That approach, long advocated by UNC-CH leaders, could have created a public outcry and political controversy. Another traditional hot-button issue — tuition — won’t be much of a factor. The plan proposes that new initiatives would be paid for by the state and by efficiencies within the universities.
It’s unclear whether the plan will be palatable to the university’s bankers — the Republican-led legislature and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. For years, the university had strong support from the Democratic-dominated General Assembly and Democratic governors.
The UNC plan calls for an additional $267 million in annual spending by the fifth year — or $200 million after other cost savings are taken into account. All told, the UNC system will seek an additional $910 million during the five-year period from this year to 2018. The system received $2.5 billion from the state in the last fiscal year.
Universities may face tough questions, judging by comments McCrory made last week in a national radio show, when he talked about the “educational elite” and said he wanted university funding “not based on how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.”
Though McCrory said he believes in the liberal arts, he also said fields such as gender studies should be pursued at private colleges, where they are not subsidized by state dollars.
His comments touched off an angry response from faculty and some alumni, who flooded online comments, blogs and letters to the editor of state newspapers. Others said his comments were on the mark as the debate raged about whether a university education should be judged by whether it leads to a good job.
Jennifer Job, a Ph.D. student in education policy at UNC-CH, started an online petition this week, “Protect liberal arts classes at UNC,” in response to McCrory’s remarks. It had more than 12,000 signatures in two days’ time.
“We’re pretty ticked,” she said.
Job taught high school English in North Carolina for several years before pursuing a graduate degree. An English major, she said, “We feel like we’re doing a lot of good for the state of North Carolina. To hear him say something that our degrees were a waste of money, that really frustrated us.”
And the idea of tying university funding to jobs snagged by graduates just doesn’t make sense, she said.
“I’m like, how that’s going to work?” she said. “That’s a terrible idea.”
‘Change and challenge’
The McCrory comments amped up the debate about UNC’s future strategy at a time when many are feeling nervous about the fate of public universities in general. A report last month from Moody’s Investors Service issued a negative outlook for the entire U.S. higher education sector, even market-leading, research-driven universities.
“The US higher education sector has hit a critical juncture in the evolution of its business model,” wrote Eva Bogaty of Moody’s with the release of the report. “Strong governance and management will be needed by most universities as they navigate through this period of intensified change and challenge.”
Ferrel Guillory, director of UNC-CH’s Program on Public Life, said McCrory’s comments make it “somewhat more difficult for us to really work our way through some really tough issues in the university and its funding.”
“People have a right to scrutinize us,” Guillory said. “We ought to be strong enough, big enough to absorb the criticism, but we also have to tell public authorities, ‘OK, criticize us but don’t hurt us in terms of funding.’”
The UNC strategy outlines an approach that includes liberal arts as an integral part of preparing students to be good communicators, problem solvers and critical thinkers. The draft plan seems to reassure that the university has no intention of cutting philosophy or history or women’s studies.
“Graduates entering the workforce today are likely to hold five to eight jobs over the course of their working lives, and many of those just entering the University will assume jobs at graduation that don’t yet exist,” the draft report says. “Therefore, we must adapt to the changing aspirations of students and the growing expectations of those who invest in higher education, while continuing to deliver rigorous education through strong liberal arts curricula.”
Peter Hans, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, said the debate is healthy.
“We are having a national conversation about higher education,” he said. “Many of the issues raised in the strategic plan reflect that in terms of costs, value, efficiency, accountability, the role of research. It’s useful for us to talk about these things.”
Some think the plan goes too far in some areas, while some think it doesn’t go far enough, Hans acknowledged. But it’s important to follow through on the goals to keep the university successful and sustainable, he said.
“Our goal is to take the best of what made this university great and adapt it to the challenges facing us. This is the start of that.”