UNC Tomorrow Commission: Making the University “Demand-Driven

Editor’s Note: Peter Hans is a member of the UNC Board of Governors and was recently re-elected to a new four-year term. He is also a member of the new UNC Tomorrow Commission, which was created by the Board of Governors. In this interview, we ask Hans about the commission, its plans, and its purposes.

Clarion Call: First, what is the commission?

Peter Hans: This is our effort to assess what North Carolina needs from its public university system over the next twenty years, and how we should respond to those needs.

CC: Who is actually in charge of it? And why was it formed?

Hans: Jim Phillips, a Greensboro lawyer, is the chairman of both the UNC Board of Governors and the UNC Tomorrow Commission.

CC: What is the timetable? How will you collect your information?

Hans: This is an 18-month effort which should be complete by mid-2008. We’ll collect information by meeting with business, nonprofit, community, policy, and governmental leaders in each of the state’s regions. Faculty from across the University will provide research and advice to the Commission through a Scholars Council, which includes academics such as economist Michael Walden from NC State and demographer James Johnson from UNC Chapel Hill.

CC: Is the purpose of the commission to improve education in North Carolina or is its goal broader — such as determining how the public university system can achieve other goals of North Carolina residents?

Hans: Our goal is to create a long-term plan that will position UNC to become, as President Bowles often says, more demand-driven, proactive, and responsive consistent with the University’s mission of teaching, research, and public service.

CC: We ask this because we are wary that this could turn into “just another economic development commission” and not deal with university issues, which we view as the proper focus of the Board of Governors. What do you think?

Hans: We’ll need to be vigilant about keeping our focus. We plan to identify major trends and challenges facing North Carolina and its regions, including synthesizing and updating existing reports and studies, analyze what the campuses are already doing, and conduct internal reviews of existing resources.

CC: The Board of Governors has received some criticism (for example, an editorial April 11 in the Charlotte Observer) for being too political. In addition, its size (32 members) makes it an unwieldy organization to bring about change, especially if that means standing up to administrators or politicians. How will the UNC Tomorrow Commission make itself effective?

Hans: The Board of Governors receives a lot of heat from a lot of different quarters. And that’s okay if, at the end of the day, we promote higher education policy in North Carolina which makes sense and helps our state realize its full potential. The UNC Tomorrow Commission will face the same challenge of satisfying many people with many different views. Fortunately the people of North Carolina are passionate enough about their university system to vigorously debate its future direction.

CC: It seems to be “conventional wisdom” that universities contribute to economic growth in the state. But some evidence suggests that state spending on higher ed may actually retard economic growth because it takes taxes and uses them in inefficient ways. Do you have an opinion about this – and will this be an issue that the commission looks at?

Hans: I believe the UNC system, under the leadership of President Bowles, is more open to “loving criticism” and contrarian thinking than at many points in its past. That’s a good thing from my perspective and we should have those sorts of debates. It will sharpen the focus of our efforts and we welcome the accountability. We also have the responsibility to communicate more fully and accurately what the citizens are getting in return for their investment in the university system.

CC: Some people think that the UNC system is already too big and tries to do too much. Will you seek out of the views of such critics as well as those of “boosters” of the system?

Hans: I would encourage those critics to be constructive participants in this effort, absolutely.

CC: How will the report of the commission influence government spending in the state?

Hans: That remains to be seen. I believe that, if we do our job well, the UNC Tomorrow Commission’s report will help guide higher education spending for some time.

CC: Can any member of the public present comments to the Commission? If so, what should an interested party do?

Hans: We invite the public to interact with the Commission through our Web site — www.nctomorrow.org. We’ll also be conducting a series of regional listening forums across the state this fall where the public will be welcomed to participate. Information on those dates and locations will be available on the website once they are scheduled.

CC: Commissions with grand goals often issue reports that sit on a shelf. Your participation suggests that you are optimistic about the impact of this commission. Why?

Hans: I’m hopeful. Of course, only time will tell about the effectiveness of this approach. I plan to do all that I can to make it a success. I do know this is a good faith effort to take a hard look at the UNC system and find out what we’re doing well…and not so well…and then plan ahead. Our state is changing rapidly and we need to be ready to change with it.

CC: Thanks for answering these questions.