Higher education is important – not just to the college graduate – but also because of its day-to-day impact on everyone, UNC System President Emeritus Tom Ross told business professionals and government leaders Tuesday at the Friday Center.
People who have a college education earn more and spend more with businesses, and live healthier and more productive lives, Ross said at the annual meeting of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce. High education helps reduce crime and the number who need government aid, which saves money, he said.
“So if for no other reason, you should care about the university simply because of what it adds to the economy, to the money that is spent by its employees, the difference those employees make in the community and how the presence of the university helps your businesses,” he said.
Ross, who got a standing ovation before and after his remarks, also was awarded with the Duke Energy Citizenship & Service Award, which recognizes individuals and groups who use their time, talents and compassion to make a positive difference and encourage others to get involved.
“We want to show our gratitude and recognize President Ross for his leadership and the role he has played in developing (innovative) talent across the state and for the successes that the university’s students, faculty and staff have achieved under his leadership,” Duke Energy District Manager Indira Everett said.
The 17-campus UNC system adds over $1.2 billion a year in research grants – generating jobs, discoveries and companies – Ross said, and has a budget of more than $9 billion, making it the state’s 11th largest industry.
A 2013 analysis found it contributes roughly $27.9 billion in added economic value to the state, or 6.4 percent of its gross domestic product, he said.
But higher education is at a critical point, Ross said.
The state and national investment is less now in real dollars than it was 25 years ago, he said, and families in some states pay more than half the cost to support universities. Other states are taking advantage and siphoning off talented faculty, he said.
The business community can help advocate for a greater investment, Ross said, starting with support for the $2 billion “Connect NC” bond issue – nearly half for the UNC system – on the March 15 primary ballot.
“Today, it is my fear that colleges and universities in this country are considered increasingly as nothing more than factories that must demonstrate an immediate return on investment for consumers,” Ross said.
“There’s been far less talk about academic quality and excellence, and there is more and more talk about operational efficiency,” he said.
Robert Saunders, the outgoing chairman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce board, presented three awards to local individuals Tuesday:
▪ Chair’s Award for Public Private Partnership: Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens, also is the chief executive officer of Think Leadership Ideas, “is leading the transformation of Hillsborough from historic Hillsborough to ‘happening’ Hillsborough,” Saunders said. The town faces “complex challenges and opportunities of growth, redevelopment and downtown revitalization,” he said.
▪ Chair’s Award for Service to the Chamber: Chris Barnes, vice president of Regions Bank, served with distinction as the chamber’s treasurer, Finance Committee chair, board development chair, vice chair and chair of the board of directors, Saunders said. Barnes also was treasurer and chair of the chamber’s nonprofit Partnership for a Sustainable Community.
▪ Ambassador of the Year: Jeffrey Wehner, managing director of the Business Advisory Group, provides small business and individual coaching by developing performance-based strategies, Saunders said. “Ambassadors are volunteers who build relationships with the chamber’s newest members, facilitate networking among members, and encourage meaningful participation and involvement in chamber programs,” he said.