The University Needs to Know Its Own Limitations

One of my favorite movie lines occurs when Clint Eastwood (“Dirty Harry” Callahan) says to a criminal he has just subdued, “A man has got to know his own limitations.”

Knowing one’s limitations is a good idea for institutions as well as individuals, but for some years now, it’s been evident that UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser doesn’t recognize any limits on his university. His September 15 “State of the University Address” shows that he believes the university to have a far wider range of capabilities than it actually does.

One example is the Chancellor’s statement that “North Carolina must compete in this global economy, so it is absolutely critical that its flagship university be a player on the world stage.” That’s why UNC is building a new Global Education Center.

It sounds nice – exactly the kind of “Look, we’re doing something!” activity that public figures adore. Sorry, but being a “global player” is beyond UNC’s limitations.

The trouble is that “North Carolina” does not compete in the global economy. What’s accurate to say is that some North Carolinians compete globally, something that has been true for a long time. People and companies who are concerned about (or profit from) international trade can obtain the specific knowledge they need to best respond from a huge number of sources. Some are in North Carolina; others elsewhere in the U.S. or in foreign countries. Building a Global Education Center isn’t going to make the state any better off.

But again, it sounds nice.

Chancellor Moeser also wants the university to improve K-12 education in the state, saying that “our public education system in North Carolina is not keeping pace with 21st century needs.”

Fascinating – one part of the state’s public education establishment criticizing another. And criticism is very much in order. Public education generally costs too much and delivers too little, which is why many college professors say that they regard a substantial percentage of their students as unprepared for serious work.

The weakness in public education, however, is inherent in its socialistic structure and that’s something UNC couldn’t alter even if it wanted to. But Chancellor Moeser is intent on doing something, so the university has established a website that “receives 10,000 visitors per day and provides support to teachers and students in all North Carolina counties.” Also, it has set up two traveling science laboratories to give students hands-on experience and provide classroom materials to teachers.

UNC’s little bits of help are going to affect North Carolina’s public education mess about as much as if Chancellor Moeser had gone to New Orleans to help remove the floodwater with a spoon. Nevertheless, such visible “engagement” creates good public relations.

We’ve been hearing for years how UNC is the economic engine of the state, so it was no surprise that Chancellor Moeser declared that “the state’s universities are the engine for the new economy for North Carolina.” Talk like that makes it seem as though every dollar the General Assembly pours into UNC is a great investment, propelling the state rapidly forward.

In particular, Moeser talked about the project called “Carolina North,” which is UNC’s “new campus for living and discovery.” Sure, building it will cost state taxpayers plenty, but an economic impact study says that Carolina North is going to generate 7,500 local jobs and $48 million in tax revenue by 2020!

I don’t know if that was an applause line, but I’d hope that any economics majors present would have yawned. The money devoted to Carolina North would have been spent elsewhere and perhaps to greater benefit if it weren’t for UNC’s ability to lobby the legislature for the spending it wants. I’m sure that the Chancellor understands opportunity cost; he just can’t pass up a chance to play up this new bauble to the max.

But that’s not all. Moeser informed his listeners that UNC’s “challenge is to maximize our capacity to help fuel” the state’s “economic transformation,” for which Carolina North will be a “catalyst.”

Oh, please. Whatever transforming the thousands of businesses located in North Carolina might need to do as economic conditions change will be done without giving the slightest thought to UNC.

The speech went on about the fine arts, staff salaries and benefits, diversity, and more. Nothing on whether UNC students are learning key skills and knowledge better than before, but why would a university leader want to talk about that?

George Leef is the executive director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.