The Best Laid Plans

In 2007, the University of North Carolina system revised its strategic plan with great fanfare. Developed by the UNC Tomorrow Commission, the process featured “town hall” meetings at numerous locations across the state, public surveys, and all manner of input from various estates. It also garnered considerable media coverage. At times, it seemed that all that was missing was some trapeze artists and elephants for it to be a full-blown circus.

While UNC Tomorrow seemed to be a bottom-up approach with lots of public involvement, it was also a very controlled process that produced a report that strongly resembled a Democratic Party election campaign platform of the era—not surprising since the commission’s executive director, selected by UNC president Erskine Bowles, was Norma Houston, a longtime aid to Democratic Senate President Marc Basnight. The final report was largely a design for government expansion. 

Now, the Board of Governors is again revising its blueprint for the future. According to the board president, Peter Hans, the governors are required to do so every five years. And as UNC system president Thomas Ross noted on September 13 at the most recent Board of Governors meeting, a lot has changed since 2007.

Things may be different this time around, with less spectacle and a more wonky, bureaucratic approach rather than the populist tack taken by Houston. The 2012 process will take approximately four months rather than the full year UNC Tomorrow took to produce its report.

The UNC Tomorrow report was completed before the recession, when it seemed that North Carolina’s economy would forever enable the legislature to throw increasing amounts of money at its university system. As Ross stated at the BOG meeting, the new plan must be conducted with an understanding that the university system faces “a time of limited resources.” 

Also, the board was an overwhelmingly Democratic organization in 2007, to be expected after over a century of that party’s control of the legislature. Currently, Republicans hold a slight edge on the 32-member board, and Republican Fred Eshelman will be the central board member in the new plan.

Two separate bodies will oversee the plan; one will be headed by Eshelman and composed of administrators (primarily school chancellors) and General Administration staff. It will deal will with specific policies and information gathering. The other will be a larger and more general oversight committee, with a wide-ranging membership including board members (Eshelman is one), chancellors, politicians, general administration staff, faculty members, and community and business leaders.

Despite the new appearances, it remains to be seen whether the new plan will result in any substantial changes in direction for the UNC system. While the economic climate and many of the key individuals involved differ from five years ago, the UNC administration dominates the working committee, and will play a role as big or bigger than the governors will.

Furthermore, Ross is setting the initial agenda. He provided a list of five goals for the planning campaign, each with several sub-goals. While these goals are very general at this point, they still form a set of guidelines that will strongly influence the final plan. Ross’s five basic goals are:

  1. Set degree attainment goals responsive to state needs;
  2. Strengthen academic quality;
  3. Serve the people of North Carolina;
  4. Maximize efficiencies;
  5. Ensure an accessible and financially stable university.

They all sound laudable on the surface, but it is difficult to derive any indication of the direction that the UNC system will take from them. A few of the sub-goals sound potentially troublesome. For instance, while discussing the first goal at the September 13 meeting, setting “degree attainment goals responsive to state needs,” Ross cited a presentation given at the August board meeting by former Landmark Communications CEO John Wynne. That talk had called for a massive state-funded increase in the number of college graduates. Starting with this assumption is a mistake; our economy’s need for more graduates is highly debatable; right now, an extremely high percentage of recent graduates are forced to seek work outside their field and take jobs for which no higher education is required.

Eshelman emphasized that he intends to keep his committee’s investigation “data-driven” with “no pre-conceived notions.” Still, the fact that the new planning campaign began at the August meeting with Wynne’s presentation raises some questions about objectivity. Wynne’s philosophy closely resembles the recommendations of the UNC Tomorrow Report, which encouraged the system to expand its role in the economic realm. That report stated: “UNC should be more actively engaged in enhancing the economic transformation and community development of North Carolina’s regions and the state as a whole.”

It is an ominous starting point for a new strategic plan to promote ideas that rest on questionable assumptions. If Eshelman truly wishes the process to remain objective, he will have to be vigilant to make sure that the staff members and administrators on his committee do not control the flow of information too tightly. It will be interesting to see whether a speaker is invited to a Board of Governors meeting who will counter Wynn’s pro-growth presentation.

Another crucial matter concerns Ross’s call to “strengthen academic quality” by increasing “the focus on preparing graduates with the core competencies needed to succeed.” It is likely that, in this case,the rhetoric may not match the eventual policy. In recent years, the UNC system has moved away from true general education programs that emphasize a common core of knowledge. Instead, it has given students a vast array of general education courses with which to satisfy requirements and by promoting the teaching of writing “across the curriculum” rather than through intensive training in specific courses.

In a private conversation soon after he took office in 2010, Ross said that he favored giving students maximum flexibility in choosing their classes, rather than mandating a strict core, since college is a time for personal exploration. Yet “core competencies needed to succeed” don’t come easy—it seems as if Ross, and the UNC system, are missing the inherent tradeoff between developing core competencies and personal exploration.

Ross’s goals do include some promising elements. For one, he wishes to continue improving academic quality with stronger admissions standards—continuing a process of raising standards that began with his predecessor. He also wishes to improve the university system’s “space utilization,” something that the university system desperately needs to explore in the long run to avoid building expensive new buildings. Currently, campuses are extremely underutilized in non-peak hours.

The new strategic plan is highly welcome; UNC Tomorrow promised all things to all people in a time of seeming endless prosperity. That day is past, and the key contributors to the new plan show some signs that they understand a university system’s limitations. Maybe this time around they will get it right—but that will happen only if board members control the process and avoid automatic acceptance of the conventional wisdom from the past.