Commentaries
What's In Store

Erskine Bowles has laid out his intentions for the UNC system for the upcoming school year.

By Jay Schalin

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September 27, 2009

UNC president Erskine Bowles laid out the system’s agenda for the next year at the September 18th Board of Governor’s (BOG) meeting. Bowles is sticking to the UNC-Tomorrow playbook—all of the major priorities were taken from the UNC-Tomorrow Report). Yet many things have changed since the UNC-Tomorrow Report was completed. And it was made using many assumptions that now appear to be less certain due to the changed economy and political climate.

For instance, the report assumed that North Carolina’s rapid population growth would continue, something that is no longer happening. And it was expected that the state’s economy would also continue its rapid growth—obviously, that has not happened, either. Also, UNC-Tomorrow was intended to discover what the people of North Carolina wanted from the university system—there has been a drastic change in many people’s lives over the past two years, and perhaps what they wanted then no longer holds. (The method for finding out what they wanted was also flawed—it more realistically found out what the special interests and individuals likely to get involved with UNC-Tomorrow wanted).

So it is important to examine the specific plays he actually intends to run from the UNC-Tomorrow playbook. They are:

1. “Continue to do our part to improve K-12 education”

This is a very laudable goal, and it had a high priority in Bowles’ inaugural speech in 2006. The UNC system trains a majority of the state’s K-12 teachers, and the quality of K-12 education is a major concern in North Carolina and the rest of the country. The nation’s students are falling behind their international counterparts in math and science, high school graduation rates have been hovering around 70 percent throughout the country (North Carolina’s rose to 71.7 percent for the year 2009), and of those who graduate and go on to higher education, 42 percent of community college freshmen and 20 percent of freshmen in four-year institutions enroll in at least one remedial course.

Bowles noted that the problem is no longer about increasing the numbers of teachers that the education schools produce, but the quality of teachers that graduate from the schools. UNC has a comprehensive “longitudinal data” study in the works, partly to discover which education schools are effective in teaching teachers. This study should help provide insight into this question.

But the changes must be meaningful, not just greater efficiency in maintaining the status quo. Several of the sub-topics mentioned by Bowles raise questions about whether real change will occur. For instance, he intends to make “curriculum changes to align with national and state standards.” But the state and national standards are likely to have been created by the very educational establishment that has caused many of the problems in the first place. Education schools have become infused with the “social justice in education” movement and other trendy ideas that detract from real learning. Real improvement will require changes in the underlying philosophy of education, and that might meet resistance from the education establishment.

Still, he pinpointed areas that sorely need improvement. One is a proposed “redesign” of “leadership” programs. (Leadership is an area of emphasis in graduate degrees that often leads to administrative positions.) A redesign in this area is badly needed—it is the most affected by the social justice philosophy in which the objectivity of knowledge is questioned and students are considered as equal to the teachers inside the classroom.

2. “Continue efforts to increase access to higher education.”

Higher education in North Carolina is already very accessible. Tuition levels at UNC schools are among the lowest in the country, averaging $2,590 for in-state students at all 16 schools (from $3,953 at N.C. State University to $1,681 at Elizabeth City State University), and the community colleges charge roughly $1,300.

To put these tuition amounts into perspective, a full-time summer job (for 13 weeks) at minimum wage provides $3,718 in pre-tax income. That is just about enough to pay for full tuition and fees at the average school in the UNC system. And with all the state and federal financial aid programs already in existence, many in-state students wind up paying nothing or almost nothing for tuition, books and fees.

Such easy access can be expensive to taxpayers. Bowles stated some very sensible goals. One is to simplify the need-based financial aid system, which is currently a maze of different programs.

The trend of dramatic growth of UNC schools is likely to diminish as the system finally is going to place some limits on enrollment growth. Bowles said he hopes to tie enrollment to retention and graduation goals: schools that meet their targets would be permitted to raise enrollment, while schools that fail to meet them would have to maintain admissions at current levels.

The way to do this, he suggested, is to increase cooperation between the universities and the community college system. Many students not accepted by the universities as freshman would likely enroll at community colleges and transfer. After proving themselves at the community college level, such students would then be able to make a smooth transition to the state universities.

3. “Continue to internally transform our institutions to be more nimble, efficient, and responsive.”

Much of this priority involves improving the way the system conducts business, and has been a major focus of the system since Bowles assumed office. Early in his administration he initiated studies that would discover inefficiencies throughout the system. This knowledge became invaluable when the system faced the recent legislative budget cuts—over 90 percent of the 900-plus jobs eliminated in the system were administrative positions rather than academic. Bowles said that reducing middle management wherever possible will be an ongoing effort.

Some of the programs already initiated by Bowles in this vein are the PACE (President’s Advisory Committee on Efficiency and Effectiveness) and FIT (Financial Improvement and Transformation), which included a year-long study of the system by national accounting firm Ernst and Young to discover the best business practices. There has been a recent in-depth study of UNC-Chapel Hill by Bain and Associates (initiated and paid for by an anonymous donor) to uncover waste that Bowles suggested would be applied to other schools in the system.

UNC will also standardize operation through methods such as implementing system-wide software. For example, the BANNER system maintains financial, student, financial aid, and human resources data. E-Procurement allows buyers to make purchasers taking advantage of UNC’s market clout.

Some of the system’s hundreds of centers and institutes saw cuts or had their school funding eliminated this year (many of these continue to survive on private funding). Bowles’ indicated that more non-essential centers would continue to undergo “review” while looking for further budget reductions.

One potential area for mischief concerns a stated desire for the university system to be more “demand-driven.” This can cover a lot of ground: it can mean something as obvious as the need to add class sections when certain courses become more popular (or eliminate them when they become unpopular), or it can also mean making changes according to the whims of special interests, such as academia’s many supporters of environmentalism. UNC policies in recent years have emphasized various “green technologies,” such as alternative fuels research. However, a recent study shows that Spain devoted its economy over the past decade to a similar program of green technologies and creating “green jobs,” with lackluster results. According to an economics professor at Juan Carlos University in Madrid, "Every ‘green job’ created with government money in Spain over the last eight years came at the cost of 2.2 regular jobs, and only one in 10 of the newly created green jobs became a permanent job.”

4. “Increased focused research” and “become more actively engaged in economic transformation.”

Focusing research on finding ways that can be used to generate income from patents and licenses is also a questionable move. This puts the university on par with private industry, and private industry is bound to be more efficient in this area due to its profit motive.

Bowles would like the system to promote economic development utilizing the university system’s research capabilities. Some things make sense, such as streamlining technology transfer processes that enable university researchers to move their products into the commercial marketplace.

But the idea that universities should have “economic development” as a primary goal is still up for debate. One such attempt to have UNC research create jobs, university involvement with the bio-tech research campus at Kannapolis, has already cost the state a great deal of money ($22.5 million for operating expenses during the 2009-10 fiscal year). Yet it is far from producing any viable results, and Bowles referred to it several times at the BOG meeting as “risky.”

UNC officials particularly wish the system to increase the amount of research funding it gets from private industry (current amounts). While this might seem a sensible path with little downside, it creates a host of problems. Some are ethical—lines dividing proprietary knowledge from public knowledge can get blurry when a university gets money from the government and industry to conduct similar research. And money calls the shots on campuses, just like it does everywhere else. When industry research grants become a more important source of revenue, priorities are likely to change, with undergraduate education--the primary mission of a university—likely to lose out.

5. “Enhance global competitiveness”

Not everything in this category seems to fit—it’s hard to see what one item, “implement hate crimes policy,” has to do with global competitiveness.

On the other hand, goals to set higher standards have a lot to do with competitiveness. Of particular interest is the goal to improve admissions standards. Limiting enrollment, as mentioned previously, will do a lot to accomplish this goal as gradual population increases make the applicant pool larger. Certainly, improving the caliber of students who attend UNC schools will do much to change the year-to-year retention rate of students and graduation rates, but Bowles also suggests that the Summer Bridge “boot camp” be evaluated for expansion. This is just one of several mentoring programs that focus on retaining students with weak academic backgrounds. However, if there are higher admissions standards and limited enrollment, there should be less need for such hand-holding programs, not more.

An area of major concern Bowles intends to address this year is the university system’s employment policies. For several years, UNC has had a goal of paying its faculty at the 80th percentile nationwide—an extremely generous policy. But according to the census Bureau, North Carolina is only 36th in per capita income (equivalent to the 28th percentile). The 80th percentile policy therefore puts extreme pressure on the state’s finances. With a greater role being planned for the community colleges, the two-year schools will also need to get a larger share of resources. And community college faculty salaries are well below the national average.

 


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