Change, We Hope

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on Monday, November 5.

The winds of change may be sweeping through the halls of the University of North Carolina. Some members of the Board of Governors are asserting themselves—and important issues and alternate opinions that have long been ignored are coming to light.

In recent years, and for much of its existence, the board almost exclusively followed the lead of the UNC system’s administration. As the governors appoint the system’s president, it is only natural that the board and administration would favor similar policies. And because their views, historically, were shared by most of the system’s faculty, there has been little major dissent for many years. Even the recent budget cuts did not affect the system’s philosophical unity.

But that is no longer the case. Voting members of the Board of Governors are chosen by the legislature, and the election of 2010 brought about a new Republican majority on the board. They have recently begun expressing opinions contrary to the system’s longstanding consensus.

Board member Fred Eshelman is leading the charge. Eshelman, founder of medical research firm PPD and a large donor to UNC schools, is the chairman of one of the two committees convened by the governors to revise the long-range blueprint for the university system, the UNC Strategic Directions Working Group. (The other is the UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions, which includes people from outside the system.)

At an Oct. 24 meeting of the other committee, the UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions, Eshelman raised an alarming statistic from the best-selling book “Academically Adrift,” written by two sociology professors. The authors state that, “with a large sample of more than 2,300 students, we observe no statistically significant gains [after two years] in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills for at least 45 percent of the students in our study.”

The Collegiate Learning Assessment, which was used to determine academic gains in the “Academically Adrift” study, is not an infallible tool. But it is perhaps the best measurement of collegiate achievement available. “Academically Adrift” also corroborates observations made by higher education critics from both inside and outside the ivory tower, that much of the nation’s higher education efforts are going for naught.

While the “Academically Adrift” study was national, it is fair to assume that a similar lack of progress occurs at UNC schools. This failure to educate is the sort of issue that has long needed attention but remained hidden from view.

Another example of the changing relationship between the board and the general administration revolves around UNC President Tom Ross’s highest priority for the new strategic plan: setting an actual numerical goal for increasing graduates from UNC schools. Several speakers invited by the general administration to both the board’s regular meetings and the strategic advisory committee have promoted the need to dramatically increase the number of graduates to meet the needs of the future economy.

Eshelman, however, made the case that projections of the future demand for college graduates are mainly conjectural and that such information should be viewed “with a jaundiced eye.” He emphasized that trying to be “clairvoyant” about future employment markets and establishing “overreaching” goals is likely to be counterproductive.

He also indicated that North Carolina may already have considerable “underemployment” among its college graduates, as roughly 26 percent of the state’s workforce has bachelor’s degrees or above, while only 19 percent of the jobs require such degrees.

Raleigh businessman and advisory committee member Art Pope added that planning for specific quotas of graduates is the kind of “central planning” proven to fail everywhere it’s been tried. (Disclosure: Art Pope’s family foundation is the primary donor to the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.)

To his great credit, Ross, who is also the chair of the advisory committee, said that the committee would revisit the decision about the degree attainment goal – including “whether to have such a goal.” Ross’ willingness to rethink the issue was the sort of leadership the system now needs.

After four decades of one-sided governance and rapid growth, members of the Board of Governors are showing a welcome awareness of the need to reassess old assumptions, fix current problems and avoid future errors, rather than blindly pushing for further growth. They—and Ross as well for not obstructing them when they raise new issues and express alternate opinions—should be applauded.