Will the UNC System Rise Above Higher Education’s Status Quo?

In 2013 the University of North Carolina System’s General Administration and Board of Governors released Our Time, Our Future: The UNC Compact with North Carolina. The “strategic directions” outlined in the report were ambitious in scope and were intended to give university leaders reform goals to work toward in a five-year span.

Some of the goals were laudable, and in the three intervening years progress has been made on them. For instance, an agreement between the state’s community college system and the UNC system now makes it easier for two-year college students to transfer to a state university. Also, small steps have been taken, however slowly, to improve general education curricula and teacher preparation programs.

But the report had serious flaws. First, its broad ambition quickly clashed with the reality of state budget priorities, politics, and the confusing tangle of a bloated (and overpaid) higher education bureaucracy. In grasping for everything, system leaders ended up missing low-hanging fruit. The second, more critical issue with the report is that it was created in an echo chamber filled with bromides and establishment thinking, which resulted in a number of dubious proposals.

Our Time, Our Future called for a major increase in the percentage of state residents with college degrees, despite mounting evidence of an over-saturation of such degrees—not to mention the unemployment and underemployment issues that now seem to be a hallmark of the Millennial labor market. It also called for boosting the state economy by providing seed funding for various public-private research initiatives. But the notion that through top-down planning universities can be engines of economic growth is misguided at best, and higher education’s track record on that front is dismal.

Fortunately, system leaders are preparing to hit the restart button on their strategic planning initiatives. Whether that will result in sound reform ideas and long-term progress, however, is up in the air. The aforementioned echo chamber of establishment thinking is predominant in higher education circles. And North Carolina’s university system is a powerful force in the state—armed with its own lobbying team, almost 50,000 employees, and a $9.5 billion annual budget. It is a machine with a tendency to aggrandize. Curbing its appetite for expansion and self-serving policies won’t be easy.

At the April 15 UNC System Board of Governors meeting, board member Champ Mitchell announced that the board’s Strategic Directions Committee (now renamed the Strategic Planning Committee) is starting the process of overhauling the 2013 initiative. Mitchell said that the 2013 plan was unfocused and that there was a wish on the part of board members to make it leaner and targeted at clearly defined, actionable goals.

The overhaul is also due to the arrival of Margaret Spellings as new system president. Unlike former president Thomas Ross, a Democrat elected by a Democratic-majority board, Spellings is a Republican working with a Republican-led board. And she has shown a desire to move the system in a (slightly) different direction. In December, as president-elect, she commissioned an analysis of the UNC system’s General Administration to find ways to improve administrative structures and increase efficiency, as well as to gain input from university stakeholders.

That report, produced by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), was released earlier this month. According to Raleigh’s News & Observer, as a result of the BCG study 8 workers at General Administration will be laid off and $2.5 million in savings will be achieved. Some of those savings, however, will go toward the creation of high-level executive positions, including a senior vice president for strategy and policy and a senior vice president for external affairs.

While one may question the value of such new positions, the most problematic byproduct of the report may be that its “findings,” based on the subjective and at times stale opinions of campus stakeholders, will be used as a starting point for the new strategic planning initiative.

As Pope Center president Jenna A. Robinson explained recently, the BCG report is for the most part a campus “wish list.” With the exception of recommendations for improving data analytics and performance management, stakeholders revealed that, collectively, they are more interested in enhancing their public brand and advocating their narrow interests than in bolstering accountability and academics.

And the five major points stressed in the report—“access, affordability and efficiency, student success, economic impact, and excellent and diverse institutions”—are similar to the major proposals in 2013’s Our Time, Our Future. Clearly, more than rhetoric will be needed for lasting, positive changes to come from the new strategic plan, which will be finalized later this year in advance of the legislature’s 2017’s budget negotiations.

In other words, system leaders must confront the real challenges facing the state’s public universities. Those challenges do not involve lack of “access” to higher education—anyone in North Carolina who wants a degree has the opportunity to earn one. (In fact, one of the other priorities in the BCG report—“student success”—is jeopardized when policymakers blindly expand access, particularly to ill-prepared students who end up taking out loans and dropping out with no degree and debt to boot.) Nor do the challenges involve the “need” to raise faculty pay, which president Spellings recently stressed is the system’s current top priority (last year, that also was then-president Thomas Ross’s top priority).

Instead, as the Board of Governors begins its work, its focus should be on academics, including raising admissions standards, which would go a long way toward increasing graduation rates, reducing students’ debt burdens, and enhancing educational rigor.

Academic reform should also include improving general education curricula. A recent employer survey revealed that several institutions in the system are producing graduates deficient in written and oral communication and other “soft skills” that are byproducts of a quality general education core. In the same vein, the board should work to implement student assessments across the system so that professors and others education leaders can make adjustments and improve course content. Doing so might help students graduate prepared for the workforce and a competitive job market.

Another priority should be reform of the state’s five public historically black colleges and universities, several of which are struggling desperately. The board should also reassess the makeup of tenured vs. non-tenured faculty in light of universities’ missions, and find ways to improve faculty hiring systems. And in an era in which some chief diversity officers on campus earn more than the governor, perhaps the board could rein back administrative excess.

There are some signs that UNC is ready for change. Margaret Spellings, for instance, has said that student assessment is important ad that efficiency is critical. Also, this Board of Governors features several reform-minded, vocal individuals who have fought the status quo on a number of important issues over the years. And more of the status quo is the last thing the UNC system needs.