As I wrap up 16 years of service on the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, I’ve concluded that no other institution comes close to the university system in shaping the state.
We must modernize where necessary. But in doing so, we must keep the essential character and the spirit intact. It has made North Carolina the best state in America to live, work, live, raise a family and retire.
Our public university fuels North Carolina’s economy. The independent universities do, too.
GlaxoSmithKline would never have decided to grow a global pharmaceutical powerhouse here but for proximity to great research universities. IBM never would have built its largest work force outside its headquarters in Research Triangle Park but for the remarkable engineering program at N.C. State.
Just this year, MetLife acknowledged the importance of our universities in announcing the creation of hundreds of jobs in Charlotte and Cary. Our university system is the single best instrument we can deploy in the job wars of this century. That is why we must make it all that it can be.
As I reflect on our university system, I can’t help but think about the individuals I met in my 16 years on the Board of Governors. They’re what it’s all about.
There was Amanda, a student who joined ROTC out of a sense of service and necessity. Service, because after 9/11, she responded to an inner calling to “right the wrong.” Out of necessity, because the ROTC scholarship made her education affordable.
There were alumni who opened their home to Miguel, a student who had no place to sleep when budget cuts closed the campus library after 11 at night. That’s right, he was sleeping in the stacks. There was only one family car and the family was 60 miles away. Miguel continues his education, and he will make a positive difference to this state, thanks to an alumni family with a generous spirit.
There is Professor Steel, who, despite offers of more money from private universities, remains committed to public education. Steel not only expands the minds of those who venture into his classroom, he inspires hearts to do good while doing well.
During my tenure on the Board of Governors, people often asked about the burden of serving while holding down a demanding job. I found that I always got more than I gave. When my world became burdensome, I could simply visit one of our campuses.
I drank from the creative waters of the UNC School of the Arts, where dancers soar, music inspires and film and theater stretch the mind and touch the soul. I stood in the shadow of the Greensboro Four at North Carolina A&T. It caused me to wonder if I had the courage to make a difference. I’ve marveled at the magnetism of the Old Well and the N.C. State Bell Tower – powerful symbols of excellence and competition.
And during these past 16 years, I’ve spent many hours at my alma mater, Appalachian State University, where, like the Psalmist, I’ve cast my eyes upon the hills, whence cometh my help.
During my tenure, enrollment increased from 140,000 to more than 200,000. The 2000 Higher Education Bond campaign at $3.1 billion was the largest higher education bond referendum in human history. The construction that came from it has transformed each campus –modernizing science labs and updating technology.
The opportunity to go to college, no matter your financial circumstances, is a part of the fabric of North Carolina. If you asked our residents whether it’s more important to have less investment in education, lower taxes or the opportunity for them, their children or grandchildren to go to a good public university with affordable tuition, how do you think they would answer?
As we look to the future, there are other key questions that have not been resolved:
• How does the university improve graduation and retention rates and remain “relevant” in an ever-changing, knowledge-based global economy when the costs continue to rise and student debt is now $1 trillion a year nationally?
• How do we modernize the university while preserving academic freedom, meeting the demands for content delivery on more efficient and effective platforms?
• How does the university address the “browning” of North Carolina – an increasingly diverse state that is home to a burgeoning Hispanic population?
I’m hopeful that the UNC Board of Governors will thoughtfully tackle these and other critical questions. And I pray that the governor and the legislature will strengthen the university, while keeping the essential character and the spirit intact. Among all our institutions in North Carolina, the university system has the greatest potential to guide us into a better future. It is up to us to ensure that it does.
Brad Wilson is president and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina. His tenure on the Board of Governors ends today.