The Twelve Reforms of Christmas

It’s been weeks since children developed their wish lists, and they are about to find out if Santa has brought what they asked for. We here at the Pope Center have put together our own wish list: twelve policies that we hope university officials and legislators (especially but not exclusively in North Carolina) will adopt to improve the quality, transparency, and affordability of higher education.

We will present the reform ideas in a three-part series, four at a time, throughout the week. Below are the first four. See if you agree with us!

1.  Increase academic transparency.

Selecting classes is difficult for students. Some even sign up for more than they intend to take so that they can find out what the courses are like, and then drop one. This makes it hard for other students to get into those classes (a big problem when students are trying to graduate in four years). One reason for this behavior is that students must make decisions based on very short course descriptions from the university’s course catalog, which give them only a vague idea of what they are getting themselves into.

To borrow an example from an article Jay Schalin wrote in 2008, a course on “English fiction” could be about nineteenth-century British fiction, about detective stories, or about “Sex, Freedom, and Constraint.” (Indeed, all these topics were included in sections of “Reading Fiction” at the University of Washington.) Knowing which sections covered what would have been tremendously helpful to discerning students.

If professors were required to post course syllabi online before students made course selections, or if they at least posted a moderately detailed course synopsis, things would be a lot easier.

Such a policy would also help those trying to make sure public universities are adhering to their original mission. (And it might have raised some red flags about “no-show” classes at UNC-Chapel Hill.)

2. Increase financial transparency.

Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Financial transparency, like academic transparency, is crucial to good government, helping to root out inefficiency and corruption.

In North Carolina, the legislature already has a way of increasing transparency: a version of the Accountability for Taxpayer Investment Act passed the North Carolina State Senate last session but stalled in the House.

The act would require that state agencies place specific information on a publicly visible website. The information would include: a mission statement, a step-by-step model for how the mission is to be carried out, outcomes measures and standards, organizational charts, and how programs get and spend their funds.

As Jay Schalin wrote in the Raleigh News & Observer, this information is “the very sort of ammunition needed to hold officials’ feet to the fire.” If relatively small government units—in the case of the university, academic departments—are required to disclose the information, that would bring genuine financial accountability to the system.

3. Cut frivolous classes.

Should state taxpayers be subsidizing a class called “Pornography and Culture”? What about “The World of the Beat Generation: Transcultural Connections” or “Dogs and People: From Prehistory to the Urbanized Future”? These classes have been taught at UNC-Chapel Hill in recent years.

It may be going too far to dismiss these classes, and many others, as frivolous, knowing only the title of the courses (a course syllabus—see item #1—would give a better idea), but if the course titles bear any resemblance to what is actually taught in those courses, we are probably wasting some state tax dollars.

4. Review academic centers and institutes for politicization.

Jefferson said it best: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.” There may be exceptions to Jefferson’s dictum, but public universities should strive to remain politically neutral. One of the most obvious ways that public universities deviate from this principle is through politicized centers or institutes. 

There is no precise definition of a center or institute, but generally it is an academic unit (e.g., several professors working together) dedicated to the study of one field, one issue, or set of issues. A center can be composed of scholars from within one discipline or across disciplines.

Some centers in the UNC system are clearly political. A system-wide review, perhaps conducted by the Program Evaluation Division of the North Carolina General Assembly, is in order. It could lead to removing state funding for the organizations and perhaps organizational disentanglement (simply being an official part of a university system is an enormous boost to fundraising).

On Wednesday, watch for the next four reforms.

(Editor’s note: The next four reforms can be found here and the final four here.)