We North Carolinians are blessed to have a high-achieving, diverse state university system that is admired not just across our country, but around the world. A 2015 analysis concluded our public universities generated $27.9 billion in additional income for North Carolinians.
The 17 public universities that make up what is collectively called The University of North Carolina were created over decades of positive, aspirational leadership – typified by that of the legendary Bill Friday and the successful business and education leader Dick Spangler. Their leadership allowed our public universities to serve their respective student populations and equip those students with the education and skills they need to thrive and add great value to our communities, state and nation.
This is not to say the university is perfect; it can always improve. As our legislative leaders, UNC Board of Governors and President Margaret Spellings have all pointed out, it surely can and must be operated in a more fiscally effective manner if we are to continue to offer a high quality education and keep tuition as low as practicable, as the North Carolina Constitution requires.
As evidence of this, the Board of Governors unanimously adopted a strategic plan this year that places renewed emphasis on metrics that are our hallmarks – access, affordability and completion of degrees. The focus of the university is not just on enrolling more students, but enrolling increasing numbers of rural, low-income and first-generation college students and graduating them with a degree that today is the ticket to the middle class.
President Spellings and her team shaped that plan. And they did so in the face of daunting projections: 65 percent of U.S. jobs are projected to require some form of higher education by 2020. That’s just three years from now. Clearly, it is vitally important to our students that we equip them to succeed. It’s also vital to our state’s future economy.
I am heartened by the positive outlook Margaret Spellings has brought to the role of president – she is smart, experienced, works hard, has strong values and leads from the front. She is determined to lead our university in a manner that not only provides our students with the highest possible quality education but does so in a fiscally responsible manner. In this effort, she has the support of our 17 chancellors who lead each of the universities that make up our system of higher education.
Historically, each legislature, whether ruled by Republicans or Democrats, has realized that investment in higher education drives economic growth in our state. Compared with other states, North Carolina’s legislature has generously supported higher education. All of our citizens have benefited from that support. It is critical that our elected leaders continue that support if North Carolina is going to compete and compete successfully for the good jobs being created in today’s knowledge-based global economy.
Similarly, each president has had a Board of Governors that carefully set the policy that the president of the University of North Carolina and through him or her the chancellors of each campus held the responsibility to execute. That responsibility has appropriately always come with real accountability to the board, but the execution of that responsibility has always rested squarely and appropriately on the shoulders of each of us who have held the job of UNC president.
My hope is that in the years ahead the legislature will continue to generously support the university; that the Board of Governors will work in a united way to set clear policy as they have done in their strategic plan; that we keep politics, whether from the left or right, as much as possible out of the management of the university; and our very capable President Spellings be fully empowered to lead us to victory in these very challenging economic times. To say the future of our state and our children depend on this is no exaggeration.
Erskine B. Bowles is president emeritus of the University of North Carolina. This commentary originally appeared on the website of the Higher Education Works Foundation.