Ten Steps to a Better University

(Editor’s note: The following is adapted from a talk by Jane S. Shaw before the UNC Faculty Assembly, an advisory committee to the UNC Board of Governors, on January 20, 2012. Jay Schalin also spoke at the meeting; his speech is here.)

University administrators are beginning to recognize that economic conditions have changed. Although the economy may gradually get better, it’s unlikely that the generous state funding for universities of the past will return. And that fact occurs against a backdrop of eroding public confidence in higher education, as recent news about the high cost of education and the poor job prospects for graduates takes its toll. Thus, the University of North Carolina, like all public universities, must restore faith in the system while facing stringency in funding.

I would like to share with you ten steps that I believe would both keep the university on an even financial keel and help convey its strengths to a wavering public.

1) Limit enrollment. Because the university system has grown so fast (twice as fast as the state’s population in recent years), it’s time to slow down. Too many students are not qualified for academic work—one sign is the fact that 35 percent of all students in the UNC system do not graduate from any UNC school after six years.

Rather than spend enormous sums on remediation, academic support programs, and summer bridge programs, it is time to set the admissions bar higher. Already, admissions standards are going up, and that is beginning to reduce the number of students in some UNC schools. Need-based state scholarships should also include a merit component to make sure that recipients are serious about their education.

2) Rely more on community colleges. At the same time, it is important that young people have access to higher education. The way to do that without bankrupting the state is to allow more state funding to go to community colleges. Community colleges teach students for about one-third the cost to the state of teaching UNC students.

The community colleges should be viewed as partners. Improving articulation agreements should continue. For their part, community colleges may have to “up their game” to make sure that transfers are ready to seriously tackle their major subjects. Remedial work should be shifted to the community colleges.

We are already seeing a national trend toward students attending community colleges for their first two years. A 2011 study by Sallie Mae reported that even high-income families are doing it. In the 2009-2010 academic year, 12 percent of those families had children in community colleges; in 2010-11, the number increased to 22 percent.

3) Re-evaluate academic programs. Some chancellors are doing this now—reviewing their degree programs and consolidating, eliminating, or cooperating (with other campuses) to make teaching more efficient. One evaluation tool is to determine whether graduates in various majors are getting jobs. Another is assessing the intellectual value of courses, removing fads and lightweight courses about pop culture, for example. Creating a true “core curriculum” for general education and limiting the highly specialized courses that count as general education would go a long way toward increasing the quality of the college experience.

4) Restore the humanities. College is not just about jobs. Universities should teach the whole person—preparing him or her not just for a job but for personal growth. An appreciation of the accumulated knowledge of the past is an important part of that preparation. Nothing would advance the public standing of the university system more than restoring respect for the humanities, the traditional core of college—history, English, classics, philosophy.

The decline in the popularity of English as a major discipline stems from the virtual abandonment of literature and the shredding of freshman composition. Frequently in freshman comp, faculty favor their pet projects and personal ideologies, and senior faculty don’t teach freshmen at all. English departments are infused with post-modernism and literary theory rather than literature. The way to get students back to these departments is to respect literature rather than try to deconstruct it.

5) Reevaluate teaching vs. research. The effort to be bigger and better in research may boost the reputation of one school or two schools, but in this environment it is a dangerous model. The value of much research is being questioned today—especially research covered by faculty salaries (as opposed to federally funded research). The public believes that undergraduate education is the core of the university, not academic scholarship.

How many classes are professors teaching? That is what the public wants to know.

6) Re-think graduate degree programs. If graduates can’t find jobs either inside or outside academia, it is unconscionable to keep producing them. Without as many graduate students, tenure-track faculty would have to teach more. But at a time of dwindling employment opportunities, that’s not a bad situation to be in.

7) Consider differential tuition. Should flagships like UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State be allowed to raise tuition, possibly in return for fewer regulations and less state funding? Should a school like UNC School of the Arts, which competes mostly with private schools, be similarly “liberated”?

For the last few years, the UNC system has been raising tuition significantly at all schools, thereby moving toward a “high tuition/high financial aid” model. This model may suit students from prosperous families and from low-income families, but it pinches those with middle-income backgrounds. Letting a few schools go to the high-tuition model, while allowing others to keep their tuition low would ensure that all segments of the population are served properly by the higher education system.

8) Admit that online education is not a financial panacea. Taking advantage of distance education is very difficult. Only a few traditional universities—Southern New Hampshire University and BYU-Idaho come to mind—have been able to adopt it as a major educational component. Certainly, some faculty can and should embrace online education. But there’s too much competition from institutions in and out of the state for this to be a large source of net revenue for public universities.

There is, however, the possibility of working with providers of online education. For example, the company 2Tor is working with the Kenan-Flagler Business School to provide an online MBA program.

9) Review administrative salaries. In 2008, the “Mary Easley” affair shocked North Carolina, when it became known that the governor’s wife had received an 88 percent raise, bringing her salary to $170,000 for directing a speakers’ seminar—a part-time job. What incensed people the most, however, was learning about the high salaries of administrators and the luxurious safety nets granted to those who had used such bad judgment. When you add to those lavish salaries the fact that the number of administrators has been on the rise in public universities, you begin to explain the lack confidence in the system. 

10) Revamp education schools. As I said earlier, the one thing that would do the most to restore confidence in universities would be to create humanities departments that have respect for the great tradition of liberal arts education. The second most valuable step would be to improve UNC’s schools of education. Studies of teachers produced by the UNC system show that many have not been well prepared for the K-12 classroom. It is no secret that UNC education schools, like most others, have veered toward education theory rather than practice and that they focus on social issues rather than conveying the nuts and bolts of how to teach. This must change if we are to unlock the full potential of North Carolina’s next generation instead of limiting it. 

In conclusion, these are difficult times. It won’t be easy to adjust to them, but the universities, like the rest of society, are going to have to do so. The university system is populated by some of the smartest people in the state—and in the country. They must apply their creativity and intelligence to making UNC a better place, in spite of greater restraints on funding.