What UNC needs in a president

The University of North Carolina system is hunting for a new president. Molly C. Broad, the current president, has announced her resignation and a committee of 13 distinguished individuals has been given the task of selecting her successor.

Perhaps it’s just public relations, but the committee has scheduled “town hall” meetings around the state this month to hear from people who have ideas on this matter. I have some definite ideas about the characteristics of the person the search committee should choose.

First, the individual must have an overriding commitment to academic integrity. Of course, every candidate is going to pay lip service to academics. The tough job will be to get through the rhetorical smokescreen to find out if it’s just talk.

One probing question would be to ask whether the candidate would work to institute a system-wide program to evaluate academic value added. Plenty of students go to college mainly for fun and to get a degree with as little effort as possible. Just because they graduate does not ensure that they have learned anything valuable.

The next UNC president should be someone who will institute a means of assessing educational value added. In broad outlines, this would entail testing incoming students on their basic academic skills and general knowledge. (By that, I mean subjects such as science and history, not who was most recently fired on “The Apprentice.”) Students would take a comparable exam in their senior year. The results would be compared to give us an idea about the educational progress made by students. We’d have an objective measure of that progress.

To my knowledge, no college or university currently does this. A candidate for UNC president who would pledge to make it a top priority should be put at the top of the list.

Second, the next president should be someone who is not in the thrall of the mania for “diversity.” The committee might consider asking a forthright question such as “Do you believe that diversity is a virtue?” and then be prepared for a lot of carefully rehearsed verbiage.

Most individuals who have been around higher education will automatically answer affirmatively, and then go on to explain how diversity makes for a better learning environment, helps to prepare students to live in a very diverse world, is a response to America’s need to achieve social justice, and so forth.

Candidates who give that sort of answer should be dropped. Diversity is no more a virtue than gravity is.

Of course people are different in innumerable ways. That’s simply a fact. A university does not make itself any better by fixating on certain aspects of difference (particularly race, gender, sexual orientation) and trying to engineer itself to give a high degree of representation to people from supposedly “underrepresented groups.”

UNC has been playing this diversity game for years, and it comes with a high price. That price is the loss of focus on excellence. Universities are about the discovery and transmission of knowledge. The race, gender, sexual orientation and so on of the students, faculty and administrators are entirely irrelevant to that.

Third, the next president should be someone who can say “no” to spending proposals that are not critical to the educational mission of the university. UNC has experienced a great deal of “mission creep” over the years, as it has undertaken tasks — economic development, for example — that are tangential to its mission. Institutions that try to be all things to all people usually wind up doing nothing very well. UNC’s next president should be someone who understands that.

Fourth, the search committee should look for a candidate who is willing to think outside the box. There are sound, attractive ideas under discussion (or even at the implementation stage) in other states that the system ought to consider, such as alternatives to tenure, voucherizing much or all of the support for higher education (that is, fund students rather than institutions), and turning to the free market for ancillary services like housing. To date, the UNC system has been resistant to innovative thinking. The new president should revel in it.

Whether anyone with those characteristics would seek the UNC job is questionable. Whether the search committee would seriously consider such an individual is even more questionable. Perhaps we’ll end up with a politically correct and politically connected president, but we can hope for better.