Reforming the Academic Core

The University of North Carolina is lucky to have had Erskine Bowles as president for the past four-and-a-half years. Even though he was closely connected to the state’s Democratic political system, he was not captive to it. Nor was he a captive of the university system itself. He brought a breath of fresh air to UNC by being a strong administrator with a clear but evolving vision of what he wanted to do, and he was willing to assert his authority when appropriate.

Although the Pope Center is not fully satisfied with his accomplishments, we respect them. He has initiated some valuable policies that his successor should maintain—and the new president should take on additional initiatives as well.

Can the university system be lucky twice in a row? Some people I have consulted doubt it. Bowles had a set of skills that will be hard to replicate. But the Board of Governors has no-nonsense leaders who want a president with strength of personality and commitment to excellence.

Rather than offer a list of the next president’s ideal characteristics, in this essay I will offer an overview of the needs of the university system, as I see them, beginning with the steps taken by Bowles that should be continued. (Jay Schalin outlined Bowles’ accomplishments in more detail in his article “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”)

Perhaps Bowles’ most important proposal to date was his review of UNC education schools. It has not yet led to the sort of reform that the education schools need, but I hope that the new president will finish what Bowles has started.

Bowles also deserves credit for his commitment to efficiency and his ability to apply quantitative data to decisions. Aware of the low graduation rates at some schools, for example, he ended the incentive payments for building enrollment at some schools and instituted minimum admissions requirements.

Bowles set the university’s house in order. He brought a tone of integrity and discipline to an unwieldy system, and his steady, firm grip on the controls provided a sense of relative calm. But it is time to move beyond that tranquility to effect substantive reforms of the “academic core”—primarily the university’s teaching, but also its research. Those are areas that Bowles has been more eager to protect than to revitalize.

Fundamental changes are more likely in a time of financial crisis, and the state’s poor financial condition may continue for some years. That will give the new president greater scope to correct flaws in academic quality. Thus, the Board of Governors should select a person who holds some core principles about education and who wants to turn those principles into policy. My recommendations follow:

  • Teaching undergraduates is the heart of the university. Over the years, research—and the training of graduate students to do more research—has tended to crowd out teaching. The new president should restore teaching to its rightful place through such steps as hiring “teaching specialists”—well-paid but non-tenured faculty who have multi-year contracts. 

    Because teaching is so important, the overwhelming role of professorial research in obtaining tenure and receiving other rewards should be re-examined. The new president should set in place policies to determine which professors are serious teachers; those who want to conduct research rather than teach should finance their research primarily through grants.

    The new president should also determine whether graduate students are being exploited as teachers, both to the detriment of their own careers and of the education of undergraduates; in a nutshell, there may be too many graduate students for the future jobs available.

  • Like their instructors, university students should be serious about education. Any faculty member will tell you that many students simply do not belong in school—they may be poorly prepared, incapable of serious scholarship, uninterested in academics, or simply immature.

    Given that many students in the UNC system are already disengaged intellectually, recent efforts to get even more students into college by expanding need-based scholarships are unwise. Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, who has covered education as a reporter for many years, recently wrote that he has never found a “gifted and motivated student” who was unable to attend college due to lack of funds. Aid is available for good students with low incomes. How much additional aid should be provided for students who barely meet admissions qualifications? The Pope Center has proposed that all scholarship funds include an element of merit, and the new president should consider that policy.

  • Throughout the university system, there is a heavy imbalance in the political make-up of faculty. This has been documented by the Pope Center (details about North Carolina will be released soon). Faculty are overwhelmingly more Democratic rather than Republican, and liberal rather than conservative. Furthermore, students report that many of their instructors are hostile to free markets, to religious belief, and to the positive side of American history. The new president should publicly set high expectations for unbiased, open inquiry within the parameters of academic disciplines. He or she should require that chancellors and provosts meet those standards.

  • One way to help students avoid courses that are politically slanted is for the future president to support the mandatory publication of complete course descriptions (syllabi) for both students and the public. Fayetteville State University has already done this, and a couple of other schools have at least expanded their online syllabi. Complete descriptions of courses will go a long way to inform students and the public of the kind of teaching that goes on.

  • Along with diminished attention to undergraduate teaching has come the disappearance of any sort of core curriculum, at least at the flagship schools. A core curriculum, as opposed to a student’s specific major or minor subjects, consists of a broad range of topics that the university deems important for every student. Yet students now pick their own “general education” courses from a smorgasbord of categories. At UNC-Chapel Hill, the students have about 2000 courses to choose from—truly an impossible task and one that makes any common shared knowledge among students virtually impossible.

    The new president should be concerned about this and, if necessary, should stand up against pressure from faculty members who want their pet courses and favored departments to be included in the general education requirements. He or she should explore instituting a genuine core curriculum, perhaps starting as a freshman option or as part of an honors program. Many schools outside North Carolina have such core curricula, but they are sorely lacking in the UNC system.

  • Research does have an important place in the university. The problem is that it is not well-monitored. In the name of supporting research, universities have gathered an accretion of institutes and centers, ranging from the North Carolina Center for Sustainable Tourism at East Carolina University to the Center for Family and Community Engagement at NC State. All such centers should be examined to see if they are making genuine contributions to knowledge or if they are merely opportunities for individuals to carry out their favorite schemes using a mix of state appropriations, federal grants, and private donations.

    For these centers, it should be a time for housecleaning. The first steps were taken when the 2009 General Assembly told UNC to cut expenditures for centers and institutes. If the “academic core” is to be supported in a time of fiscal stringency, some of these centers have to go. That should be a priority of the new president.

Readers will note that I have made no mention of UNC Tomorrow, the Board of Governors’ commission whose report was meant to provide a blueprint for the future of the university. Frankly, I was not especially pleased with the UNC Tomorrow Commission. It seemed to be more of a public relations vehicle (perhaps in some respects a Democratic Party platform) than a blueprint for the university’s future.

Although there was some merit in learning what residents of North Carolina think their university system should do, the UNC Tomorrow report is an elastic document that can be used to advance many purposes. I fear that it will be used to justify university-based attempts to achieve such lofty goals as “making a strong economy and creating jobs” and “improving the quality of life” (to quote from the report). This opens up many opportunities for mischief.

The University of North Carolina has a proud history and strong support from the citizens of the state. It should not try to be everything to everybody, however. First and foremost, it should be a serious and solid source of education for young people, provided at a price that does not bankrupt either students or North Carolina’s taxpayers. I look forward to a new president who not only maintains Erskine Bowles’ vigilance in reducing waste and his application of data-based analysis but also builds upon his achievements by addressing problems in the academic realm.