D–n the Transition! Full Speed Ahead!

When Thomas Ross was named the successor to Erskine Bowles to run the University of North Carolina (UNC) system in the summer of 2010, it was hard not to see the many parallels between the two men: they are both consummate insiders in North Carolina’s heavily Democratic political establishment.

After Ross’s inaugural speech on October 6 at North Carolina A&T University, the impression that the two UNC system presidents do indeed share philosophies has been confirmed; the specific goals and policies he cited as priorities closely match those of the Bowles administration.

Yet Ross is facing a very different environment and set of challenges than his predecessor. He may therefore find himself embroiled in struggles with the legislature, which controls UNC funding, and the system’s governing body, the Board of Governors (BOG).

Bowles, on the other hand, suffered little resistance from the Governors in his five years at the helm. Additionally, the legislature was exceedingly generous in university funding during his term, even during the economic downturn, when cuts to the UNC system were much less than cuts to other state agencies. 

But both the legislature and BOG have taken a turn to the right in the last couple of years, and the Republican majority legislature has its own agenda that will often conflict with Ross’s stated priorities.

Of course, Bowles and Ross are not exactly alike, particularly in management style: while Bowles came into office with a truckload of study-ready initiatives, Ross has taken a more deliberate approach in his first nine months in office.

Ross’s tentative leadership may be partly due to the economy; while Bowles’ term in office began with rapidly increasing state appropriations for him to work with, Ross entered face-first into massive budget cuts in state appropriations to the universities.

Still, despite the changing times, Ross voiced his support for nearly the entire Bowles’ agenda. This includes continuing to “preserve” the university’s academic reputation through aggressive recruitment of faculty and acquisition of equipment and technology. Furthermore, the university will still seek a primary role in the state’s economic development policies, as it did under Bowles.

Perhaps Bowles’ signature initiative was a push to make the system more efficient in its business practices; Ross stated his intention to continue this emphasis.

Other policies initiated or urged by Bowles that Ross gives high priority to include increasing online education programs, focusing on graduation and retention rates as a measure of the school’s efficiency and performance, and implementing higher admissions. He also indicated a desire for the university to be seen as a means to tackle all problems—an idea strongly identified with UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Holden Thorp, a Bowles appointee.

Other issues singled out by Ross that suggest preservation of the status quo rather than change include an emphasis on inclusiveness—“being a university for all the people”—and greater collaboration among university units, such as departments, schools, and campuses.

One of Ross’s priorities that might signal real change is his statement that “we cannot be everything to everybody.” Previously, the UNC Tomorrow Commission, which created the system’s “blueprint” for future growth, actually asked people what they wanted out of the university system during a year-long “listening tour” and tried to incorporate everyone’s wishes into its guidelines. (It was convened by the Governors but was largely taken over by Bowles.)

Yet, for the most part, continuity will be the rule in the Ross era. Certainly, not all of the policies he favors are bad. Online education is a good solution for several specific needs—particularly for educating older students with families and full-time jobs who require scheduling flexibility. 

Higher admissions standards are another welcome change initiated by Bowles that Ross intends to continue. Too many students who need remedial education have been admitted as freshmen, a practice that raises costs, forces schools to lower standards, and produces few graduates. The question is, with higher standards forthcoming, will schools find ways around those standards to continue admitting unqualified students, as they did in the last few years? During the Bowles era, when minimum standards were being put in place, some schools began admitting students “contingently” upon completion of summer “bridge” programs, thus nullifying the higher standards.

Admissions standards are not the only policies favored by Ross that lend themselves to “gaming the system.” Using graduation and retention rates to not only measure a school’s efficiency, but to use as hurdles to additional enrollment funding (as the system intends to do), is almost guaranteed to spur grade inflation unless severe safeguards are put in place.

Ross also stated his intention for the university system to “serve all students.” This is hardly anything new for UNC, and is laudable, on its face. He specifically listed races and economic classes for inclusion, along with non-traditional students and military personnel. But one wonders whether his inclusive spirit will extend to the many students whose beliefs are at odds with the progressive ideology that dominates almost all campuses.

If, as Ross suggested by quoting former UNC president Frank Porter Graham, that “the state University is the University of all the people,” then it must start to lend an ear to the many North Carolina residents who perceive the university system as antagonistic to their values. Many claim that a liberal bias permeates almost every corner of the university system; if so, UNC can hardly claim to be the university of “all the people.” To change such a disparity of ideas would take considerable effort on Ross’s part.    

Very likely, no such deep reform is forthcoming. Ross made several observations about a changing world, and the need for reform, such as “It is our time to redefine ourselves” and “We must remake our great University for a greater tomorrow.”  But his priorities seem very much like his predecessor’s—pragmatic at times, but fundamentally engrained in progressive principles.

It would seem, then, that the North Carolina Democratic Party establishment still controls the university system administration, even if that is no longer true of the state legislature and the Board of Governors. Before the inauguration, Ross followed Bowles’ tradition of appointing party insiders to key positions within the university system by naming Democratic governor Bev Perdue’s former budget guru, Charlie Perusse, to be the system’s new Chief Financial Officer. (Ross’s appointment of Lyons Gray, a former Republican state legislator and George Bush appointee, to a role as advisor may seem to contradict this contention. However, Gray belongs to the progressive wing of the Republican party, favoring many Democratic policies; and he cited frustration with party “extremists” as a reason for resigning from the legislature.)

Yet, unless Ross is willing to deviate from the establishment route followed by Bowles, his administration could be in for rough ride. Bowles had smooth sailing because he had little opposition. For Ross, not only is the economy increasingly uncertain, but the Governors and especially the legislature seem ready to sail in a new direction through uncharted waters.