A Punch List for UNC

Last month, the UNC system’s General Administration launched a long-awaited new website. That may not seem a big thing, but it is. The University of North Carolina has an enormous amount of information about the university, such as campus enrollment figures and campus graduation, and the GA promises soon to provide job data by major—one of the most talked about “student outcomes.”

It is now more accessible.

But there’s a lot of room for improvement. The goal should be to make the state of the university, its activities, and its governance as transparent as possible. For example, a member of the public should be able find out about policies adopted at the UNC Board of Governors meetings. But in too many cases a user still needs to know the committee meeting and the date to do that; there is no ability to browse by topic. (In fact, finding the well-known “Program Duplication Study” by former UNC-Charlotte chancellor James Woodward was impossible until I knew the exact month in which he presented it to the Board of Governors.)

On the positive side, the new website is much easier to use. Its homepage shows news from across UNC’s 17 campuses (which it didn’t before). It now links from the homepage to UNC Online so that potential students can easily find what courses are available. It links to resources for the military and lets job seekers know what positions the university wants to fill.

The biggest change was the development, in collaboration with SAS Institute, of the UNC Data Dashboard. This is an interactive database that will enable anyone to monitor key measures of university performance.  

But not yet. So far, the data included in the dashboard are the same as those on the old website, although they are easier to access and use. The dashboard is linked from the homepage instead of hidden in the far recesses of the website. The data can be manipulated in real time. And the dashboard allows users to visualize the data with graphs and charts instead of clunky PDF outputs.

This powerful tool is almost wasted on the small amount of data it currently contains. Here are my recommendations for increasing the public’s understanding of how its university operates and how it succeeds:

  • Include academic data for incoming students. What were the SAT or ACT scores of students at various universities? Average GPA? Class rank?
  • Include detailed characteristics of current students. How many took remedial courses in math, English, or both? How many received Pell grants or financial aid? How many are student athletes? How many are veterans?
  • Include departmental academic data. How many professors are employed by the political science department at each school? How many courses do psychology professors teach? How many student credit hours do they teach?
  • Add financial data, not just student data. How much money is spent per student? How much on instruction, research, support? How much do students pay in tuition and fees? In a given year, how much revenue does a university get from state government, the federal government, donations, grants, and receipts? How much does it spend on capital projects, on repair and renovations? How much does a university spend on faculty salaries versus administrative salaries?

The system already collects such data. And they’re publicly available, but only upon request and only if you know whom to ask. Instead, the data should be reported in the most accessible, transparent, and user-friendly way possible. And they should be reported down to the lowest relevant level, whether that’s university, college, or department. Quasi-independent institutes—from the Center of Poverty, Work, & Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill to the Weatherspoon Art Museum at UNC Greensboro—should be included as well.

Putting all the data online might even save the system money by eliminating duplication and reducing staff time dedicated to information requests. Currently, every university in the system employs at least one person to comply with information requests. Chapel Hill alone employs nine. It also has it own Office of Institutional Research & Assessment, which maintains a student data website. Both services could be made more efficient if more data were online at the system level.

Transparency and accountability to the taxpayer are two of the most important jobs that government does. The UNC system has made a good start; but it can do more. With SAS Institute as a partner, UNC could be the national model for academic and financial transparency.