Op-Ed

In wake of SB 873 protests, welcoming a productive discussion on UNC future

HBCU students and alumni rally against Senate Bill 873

Students and alumni of Historic Black Colleges and Universities rallied against Senate Bill 873 on the Halifax Mall behind the North Carolina Legislature on Wednesday, June 1, 2016 in Raleigh, N.C.
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Students and alumni of Historic Black Colleges and Universities rallied against Senate Bill 873 on the Halifax Mall behind the North Carolina Legislature on Wednesday, June 1, 2016 in Raleigh, N.C.

North Carolina has one of the finest public university systems in the country, built and sustained over two centuries.

Preserving that legacy won’t be easy. It will require strong public support and a willingness to meet new challenges head-on. We should be proud of what we’ve accomplished, but never complacent.

Our public universities remain some of the highest quality and most affordable in the country, but rising costs are putting a burden on many students and their families. Our statewide graduation rate is above the national average. Nonetheless, too many young people leave college without a degree but with considerable debt.

State lawmakers like Sen. Tom Apodaca are rightly focused on helping to address those concerns. Across a range of difficult issues – admissions standards, tuition rates and efforts to boost enrollment – SB 873 reflects a sincere interest and desire to promote greater access, affordability and student success. The bill has many parts, including a new merit-based scholarship program, a guaranteed tuition program and targeted reductions in tuition and fees.

But misinformation has spread, and it has also generated emotional and at times heated debate about legislative intentions and long-term impacts on affected institutions.

As a university and as a state, we must keep college within reach of every North Carolina family and do more to help students succeed once they get here without sacrificing the quality and character of our institutions.

Every UNC campus, including our HBCUs, has a role to play in reaching those goals. Every institution must be at the forefront of reaching the talented, driven students – from all backgrounds – whose education will make the difference between a state that is struggling and a state that is thriving.

Lawmakers know that. University leaders know that. Figuring out how to make it happen is a challenge worthy of a great university. And because the stakes are so high for North Carolina, I stand ready to work with our elected leaders to make our university even stronger.

As UNC president, I intend to fight hard for the resources our students need. I also applaud our chancellors for their advocacy for their institutions and willingness to be part of the solution.

We should always welcome productive discussion that can help move our university system forward. North Carolina invented public higher education more than two centuries ago, and it continues to be a national leader in financial support for its public universities today. I want UNC to remain a national leader, and that means exploring new ideas. As the short session continues to unfold, I pledge to continue to work constructively with state lawmakers to achieve our shared goals on behalf of the students and citizens we serve.

Video: North Carolina Central University student Raven Cheatham and alumni of Historically Black Universities in North Carolina gather to speak out against Senate Bill 873 at the North Carolina Legislature on Wednesday, June 1, 2016 in Raleigh, N

Margaret Spellings is the president of the University of North Carolina system.

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