Asking for the Moon and Stars

When the UNC Tomorrow Commission began a massive strategic planning process for the University of North Carolina in March 2007, President Erskine Bowles promised that the results would not “sit on a shelf.” Indeed, the commission’s report, completed in January 2008, had hardly landed on the desks of the chancellors when they were expected to develop formal responses explaining how their campuses will address the policy issues in the report.

In May 2008, the 16 university campuses did just that, submitting 941 pages of commentary, ranging from six pages (North Carolina Central’s) to 135 (Appalachian State’s). Campus officials are now working on answers to another questionnaire, more focused on academic programs, that is due in December.

It’s not clear what the pile of responses adds up to for the university system. But the 941 pages do reveal a giant collection of centers and programs already in existence designed to carry out the university’s public service mission.

Furthermore, the responses reveal a dazzling array of new proposals. The introduction to UNC-Chapel Hill’s submission says that “this is not a wish list for pet projects.” Yet, taken together, the 941 pages do resemble a wish list of major proportions.

Chancellors were asked to identify current and potential programs to address the state’s major needs articulated in the commission report. These needs include: making students and institutions globally competitive, easing access to college, improving K-12 education, spurring economic growth, and protecting health and the environment. (They were also asked to identify programs that could be eliminated, but there was less response on that score.)

So UNC-Greensboro proposed not only a new pharmacy school (for 350-400 students) but also an Institute for Community and Economic Engagement, to be composed of three new centers, the UNCG Center for Entrepreneurship, the Triad Center for Transportation, Logistics, and Distribution, and the Triad Center for the Development of Creative Capital. N.C. State proposed programs that would require $1.4 billion in new state money. Appalachian State wants to build a new education building, establish a college of health sciences, and develop its currently small branch campus near Hickory. (Appalachian State reports that the 51 programs mentioned in its response were whittled down from 182 originally submitted.)

Some projects are already in the planning stages. But many are new, such as UNC-Chapel Hill’s plan for the Community-Campus Partnership for Tomorrow, to be headed by Vice Chancellor for Public Service and Engagement Michael Smith. This program would identify a pilot “underserved” community and help it. The partnership would use other university programs, both existing and new, such as the proposed Public Education Collaborative, which would foster cooperation between the School of Education and underserved communities.

The UNC Tomorrow Commission was the invention of Jim Phillips, who authorized the commission while he was chairman of the UNC Board of Governors. In an interview, Phillips explained his motivation: he was concerned that the Board of Governors, which is responsible for overseeing the entire system, “didn’t have much engagement or a real sense” of what the campuses were doing as they planned their futures. Each campus had its own planning process, largely isolated from the rest of the university system.

Furthermore, Phillips wanted campuses to organize their planning efforts around the needs of the state. To identify those needs, the commission, under the direction of Norma Houston, held “community listening forums” and faculty forums and conducted an online survey of North Carolinians.

Phillips doesn’t see the process as opening the door to a “laundry list” of activities and programs, but rather the opposite. He sees it as the beginning of a truly collaborative university system that will start setting priorities, enabling campuses to play to their strengths rather than add weak, duplicative programs.

Phillips anticipates a second phase of campus response in which the initial exuberance settles into recognition that resources are limited, priorities must be set, and choices must be made. But whether such discipline exists in academia today is far from certain. UNC may find itself having to cope with a Pandora’s box of costly new projects and programs.