Point of View

N.C. must reinvest in higher education

April 5, 2014 

January 2014 marked my 40th year in higher education. Reaching that milestone made me pause and reflect on the journey. No matter how I looked at it, two generations or half a lifetime, I could see how the world of higher education and the life of a university professor have changed.

The qualities that drew me to become a professor still attract faculty today. The chance to make a difference in the lives of the next generation of leaders while freely pursuing academic interests in a flexible work environment continues to have huge appeal. But the world is much changed.

Nowadays, teaching is more complex and more demanding. The amount of technological expertise required to teach today is astonishing. Blackboard and chalk have been replaced by electronic teaching platforms where instructors post digital class materials, upload lectures, administer tests, host discussions and manage student performance. Faculty members must remain current in these technologies.

Twenty years ago, students rarely knew a professor’s personal phone number and certainly wouldn’t expect a return call within a few hours. Now, student access to faculty members is constant, thanks to email, online courses, automated messaging and other technologies. Yet demands in the classroom have not lessened: Faculty still teach classes on campus, hold office hours and participate in the life of the university.

Recently, four UNC Pembroke faculty members presented “A Day in the Life of Faculty” to our Board of Trustees. It was satisfying to see our faculty members put to rest the false impression that professors have an easy job. One faculty member described his workday, typical of many, starting as early as 5 a.m. and often carrying on until midnight. When not responding to email, unified messaging or social media, faculty prepare for class, teach courses, advise students, conduct research and more. All told, some 45 to 50 hours a week is typical, with much of that work taking place outside of normal business hours and outside of the classroom.

I regret to say that higher education has seen another change, one that has the potential to reverse the advances made over the last century. States slashed funding during the economic downturn, and public universities responded by eliminating programs, services and people. And yes, we’ve increased tuition to try to partially offset the cuts.

As the economy improves, our neighboring states are beginning to reinvest, but North Carolina shows no sign of following that lead. Generations of investment in our public universities placed North Carolina in the top ranks in the nation. Now that status is in question. We are in our fifth year of budget reductions, and our employees have received only one small raise in the past five years.

Yet, in spite of the improving economy, talk in Raleigh suggests that resources to North Carolina universities may again be targeted for further reductions, even when the UNC System decided not to raise tuition for 2014-15. Many of the state’s “most celebrated” research faculty are being recruited by other states, such as Connecticut, to bolster their economies and future. However, each UNC campus has a core of dedicated, excellent faculty, the heart of our superior higher education, who are outstanding teacher-scholars and who impact students’ lives daily. They, too, are leaving to find more predictable career advancement for themselves and their families.

Yes, higher education has changed dramatically. Some changes propelled us forward; other changes could push us back. A few things we are sure of. We know that North Carolina’s professors have a profound effect on the next generation of leaders, economists, artists, social workers, teachers, engineers, parents and countless others. We know they are finding solutions to the toughest social and scientific problems. And we know undoubtedly that their work directly and indirectly contributes to the quality of life of individuals and society. We will see whether the state will support their work when the legislature decides how to fund higher education.

The first 30 years of my career I spent envying North Carolina’s public education system – K-12 and higher education. Now I worry about its future. Today, my colleagues from outside of North Carolina wonder why we are dismantling what has been a standard-bearer of our nation’s public universities. And I wonder the same thing.

We must wake up soon before we lose the asset that has been the foundation of North Carolina’s success.

Kyle R. Carter, Ph.D., is the Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

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