Commentaries
Five Tasks for the UNC Board of Governors

The Pope Center offers some suggestions to help the new UNC board take charge.

By Jane S. Shaw

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July 21, 2013

The meeting of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors on August 9 will be a milestone. Sixteen new members of the UNC Board of Governors will take office—and for the first time in North Carolina history, all voting members have been selected by a Republican legislature (the first 16 were selected in 2011).

Whether the board is more conservative or not is far less important than the possibility that this board will be more independent and less accommodating to the interests of the university administration—which in the past had close ties to the Democratic Party.

Traditionally, the president and his office have handled most major issues, with the Board of Governors giving approval. For example, this spring UNC president Tom Ross announced to the Board of Governors his selection as chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill on the day before the Board voted on her—the candidate was in the room when the vote took place.

The board will begin its work with a five-year strategic plan that has substantial merit. But there are some things that the board should do regardless of whether those things are in the strategic plan. I offer the following five recommendations.

1. Hire an executive director.

The most important action the board could take may require legislative action. That is to hire its own executive director. Currently, the secretary of the university has as her sole job providing “all essential support for the work” of the Board of Governors. But the Board of Governors needs to be in charge and to have the ability to set its agendas and propose its own ideas. As Jay Schalin explained in the Raleigh News & Observer last week, “boards are susceptible to control by the very administrations they are supposed to oversee.” An executive director, which the board can hire and fire, would give it the independence it needs.

2. Look at spending, not just budgets.

Each year, as the NC General Assembly gears up for its budget-making process, the general administration of the university develops a proposal for funding. The Board of Governors discusses, perhaps modifies, and approves the budget.

But that is the last time the Board of Governors looks at how money is being spent. An audit committee is alerted to any malfeasance or deficiencies in the handling of financial matters, and a budget and finance committee reviews budgets, considers tuition and fees, and deals extensively with university property. But the board never reviews how the money from the legislature is actually spent.

The board should require detailed financial reporting down to the department level. Such a request may seem obvious, but it will surprise the administration. When asked about spending at an orientation committee meeting in June, a high-level UNC official didn’t seem to grasp the question, thinking that the member was asking about the auditing process.

The reason to look at spending is not to find out if personal expenditures have been made on university credit cards or whether money is being siphoned into personal accounts—auditors do that.

Rather, the Board of Governors should know how and why money is allocated. How much money does the English Department at East Carolina pay in salaries? How does that compare to the English Department at Appalachian State? How many salaried positions are financed but not filled? Or, how much state appropriations money is being spent on development by UNC-Chapel Hill? How many lobbyists does the general administration have and what are they paid? The Pope Center believes that this level of information should be public, but at the very least the Board of Governors should see it.

3. Require academic transparency.

The syllabi of all classes should be available online.

There are two major reasons for this (the Pope Center’s Jay Schalin has a fuller discussion here). Students should know before they sign up for a class just what to expect; often they find out on the first day of class that the course is different from what the catalog description implied.

The public, too, especially as taxpayers, has the right to know the content of the courses that are being taught. So does the Board of Governors. Its members might be surprised at how many courses lean to the left.

One UNC campus does require the posting of syllabi: Fayetteville State University. Its policy should be a model for all other campuses. Another place where syllabi are posted is throughout the state of Texas, thanks to a law enacted in 2008. A report by Texas State University at San Marcos illustrates this academic transparency.

Another requirement should be to post professors’ CVs (curricula vitae) so that students and the public know what research and writing their publicly paid-for instructors are doing. While some CVs are online, UNC does not require posting. (See TSU at San Marcos for examples of online CVs.)

4. Restore declining academic quality.

A great deal of information indicates that standards have slipped in recent decades, both in the UNC system and nationally. While there are still outstanding professors and excellent courses, it is possible for students to choose easy majors, get by without much studying, and avoid the “core curriculum” that was once at the heart of higher education. And there is no requirement for universities to provide information about “learning outcomes”—that is, indications of whether students learned what they should have by the time they graduate.

The Pope Center doesn’t recommend federal standards for learning outcomes, but the Board of Governors should insist that each campus issue information indicating how much students learn. This accords with the recommendation of the strategic plan.

Specifically, we believe that the board should require UNC campuses to post students’ scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, an exam that evaluates students’ ability to read, understand, and analyze written materials.

The University of North Carolina has backslid on this issue. Under the direction of the previous vice president of academic planning, Alan Mabe, all 16 constituent schools were supposed to assess their students and post their findings on their websites. While some have done so, using CLA or another measurement system, some have not yet posted their results, and two schools have declined to post any—UNC-Chapel Hill and the UNC School of the Arts. UNC-Chapel Hill claims that the findings weren’t representative.

It’s been seven years since “learning outcomes” hit the public media. It’s time to take action or explain why not.

The Board of Governors should act on two other academic issues.

  • UNC should continue to raise admissions standards. Currently, students must score at least 800 on the combined math and verbal SAT tests. But the College Board, which writes the exams, warns that students who score less than 1030 may not be college-ready.
  • Remedial courses should not be taught at UNC campuses; remediation is a job for community colleges. However, such courses are being taught. The Board should, first, make sure that all schools are using the same definition of remedial courses and then decide whether or not remediation has a place in four-year colleges.

5. Scrutinize teacher education programs.

One of the university’s biggest impacts on the state of North Carolina is through teacher education. UNC ed schools produce about one-third of all K-12 teachers in the state, and the board’s strategic plan quite rightly includes a focus on teacher preparation. Yet a comprehensive review of the 12 teacher education programs by the independent National Council on Teacher Quality gave only one program (UNC-Chapel Hill) more than two-and-a-half stars in a four-star rating system. And that was for just one program—Chapel Hill’s graduate-level secondary school program.

The problem of teacher preparation has been a concern since former president Erskine Bowles took office and authorized a study of teacher effectiveness. That report revealed that the Teach for America program produced more effective teachers than did UNC.

The Board should ask to know what the general administration is doing as a result of that study. It should also bring in outsiders such as the National Council on Teacher Quality, Terrence Moore of Hillsdale College, and charter school founder Robert Luddy to get a fuller picture of the impact of current teacher education policies.

Conclusion

There are many things that the new Board of Governors wants to do, but those above are plausible goals—establishing independence; ensuring financial and academic transparency; improving academic quality; and focusing on teacher education.  

 


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