A Conversation with UNC System President Peter Hans

A new leader took the helm of the University of North Carolina system during a tumultuous time. In the midst of a global pandemic, Peter Hans was elected UNC system president on June 19, 2020 and assumed the role in August. The position was previously held by interim president Bill Roper, who stepped in after Margaret Spellings resigned in early 2019.

Hans is no stranger to the UNC system. He served several terms as a member of the UNC Board of Governors and was chair from 2012 to 2014.

In 1997, Hans was elected to the State Board of Community Colleges for a six-year term. There, he served as vice-chair of the board and chair of the policy committee. In 2018, he was elected president of the North Carolina Community College system. The Martin Center’s 2018 interview with Hans can be found here.

The Martin Center sat down with Hans to discuss his vision and goals for the UNC system. This transcription has been edited for clarity and length.


1. To start off, what are your biggest goals for the system after COVID-19?

First, it will be eight months for me at the end of this month, and it has been emergency management mode. I arrived on August 1, students [were] already coming back to campus that week. We inherited plans that were in place that, in some cases, were insufficient with our larger campuses. There’s been a lot of work to improvise and adapt and overcome, if you will, which I think we have largely done—not perfectly by any means—but largely, through more testing, better health and safety protocols, coordination of campus responses, [we] kept our campus communities healthy in the process.

[We] continued graduate operations more clearly than the undergraduates in those three large institutions; 14 of our 17 institutions made it through fall in good shape. But the clinical operations, the research operations in many ways, were still open. A lot of the change to online learning I think, long-term, will be beneficial [because] it moved the mindset of faculty to embrace technology. We’ve got points that we need to iron out in terms of quality assurance in that delivery method. But I’m trying to look at the silver lining of that.

Now, you asked “post-COVID,” I would love to tell you we’re just completely done, but we’ve been in the process of standing up these vaccination clinics on almost all of our campuses, except the very smallest ones where we’ve partnered with local health care providers. We felt like this was incredibly important for us to resume operations, to be able to vaccinate members of the campus community, as well as people beyond that, as a public service.

We’ve actually found a great example at UNC-Pembroke, where people in Robeson County are more willing to trust a mobile vaccine clinic from UNC-Pembroke than [someone] coming in from the state to deliver it. But I can’t wait for the day when we are clearly just past this and I can focus on: how do more North Carolinians earn high-quality degrees with less debt? My focus is improving quality, improving graduation rates, driving down costs. And to the extent that COVID consumes us, it makes it harder to concentrate on that. And yet, we have been able to walk, talk, and chew gum at the same time—we’ve managed COVID as well as we could.

But we’ve made significant progress in a few areas, I’ll talk a lot about that today: the common course numbering, the “All Funds” budgets for campuses. We’re actually going to use some of the federal funds in a very strategic sense towards these goals of access, accelerating graduation, and containing the total cost of attendance.


2. Will pre-COVID admission standards, such as requiring the SAT or ACT test, be reinstated this year? 

If my memory is right, we’ve got two things going on in this general area. This predated my arrival, but the board has a three-year [minimum admission standards] pilot. Our role here will be to gather that data and evaluate the impacts. The other question, having to do with the one-year pause on the requirement related to the standardized test: I think that still applies to the fall of this year. It covers the fall of 2021, largely because of the practical issue—the availability of the test. But I don’t know that we’ve yet been able to evaluate what the impact of that is.

And I know that’s tied up with a much larger debate about the usefulness of standardized tests and GPA, and all the associated issues that people bring out: “this is a great way to judge by merit,” “this is cultural bias,” etc. There are so many related points here that I’m hopeful one potential outcome of this will be actual data for us to inform that debate, as opposed to speculat[ing].


3. One of the goals of the UNC system’s strategic plan is to highlight the diversity of the institutions and how each one of them is individually distinct. What are some examples of how schools are doing this? 

One of the things we’ve been able to accomplish is strengthening the program approval process, [which] we approved in January. Essentially, Dr. Roper had put a year-long pause on new program approval due to COVID. We took that opportunity to look at how to make that process a bit more rigorous in terms of tying it to outcomes, in terms of career prospects, most specifically, or market demand. I’m speaking largely of graduate programs, where you’re developing a specialization that should lead to some sort of discernible career path. You can make different arguments about undergraduate degrees.

A lot of the change to online learning I think, long-term, will be beneficial [because] it moved the mindset of faculty to embrace technology. it moved the mindset of faculty to embrace technology."]

But we knew we needed to strengthen the whole process in a way that sent a clear signal to campuses that the programs you offer need to be based on what your mission is, reflects your mission, and reflects market demand. There’s an institutional responsibility, I think we have, to make sure that we offer programs that help students make good choices. And I think this program approval process will help draw out some distinctions between the campuses that will be useful.

And that’s one of the benefits of having a system: not everybody needs to do the same thing. There’s a certain amount of necessary duplication of course, we’re gonna have English at every institution, just [to] make one obvious example. But [the schools] ought to reflect the region they’re located in, the state, and specialize. That’s been an ongoing issue for me, particularly when you look at the mission statements. If you didn’t have the campus at the top [of the statements], could you tell them apart?


4. There’s been a lot of progress on transparency in the UNC system. The availability of the public comment period, live streaming, and publicly accessible recordings of full board meetings have been notable improvements. But recordings of committee meetings are still not publicly available, as well as other special meetings of the board.  If a member of the public wants to hear what is said, they must attend the video call as it is happening. Pre-COVID, the public was required to attend committee meetings in person. Are there plans to increase transparency in this area?

Yes, we’ve talked about it a little, particularly with this Zoom era of board meetings. I don’t know what barrier exists in making that available because it’s all being aired. So, I don’t know why we couldn’t do so. [President Hans asked the system’s director of public engagement to help him follow up on that question]. 


5. In a February op-ed you wrote for the Carolina Journal, you mention that student fees and living costs are a major concern for the university system. Are there specific student fees the system is looking to cut? 

Well, good question about “cut.” With the 3 percent statutory cap, there’s [a] limit in the growth. The only fees that the board chose to act on were the health fee—which is clearly related to our pandemic services, and campus security, which they initiated on their own in response to what they felt was an opportunity to improve campus security.

I think the board is being very prudent in its actions. Not to mention, five years straight of no in-state tuition increases, which I’m not sure there’s another state in the country that could actually say that. I’m not aware of anybody that could say that—in terms of a system of higher education—which I think is impressive. Of course, it also reflects taxpayers’ generous investment in the university which allows that to be the case.

There’s so much energy around tuition and fees, understandably so, because that’s kind of the bumper sticker [of] the cost of higher education. But it doesn’t really reflect that total cost of attendance, which can often be equal to or even more than the combined cost of tuition and fees: the housing, the dining, the books, etc., which is in this third round of federal funds related to COVID (in the first round of funds, half was for direct student aid and the other half was spent on refunds for that spring semester of 2020, in relation to housing). The funds that arrived in December—the second round of federal funds for higher education—again half [went] to student aid, the other half [was] for COVID expenses. These testing regimens are quite expensive; those numbers really add up.

The third round, and we haven’t yet received these funds but they should be distributed and coming in a month or so, is an opportunity for us to think more strategically. Again there will be a requirement: a good deal [will go toward] student aid, but it will be more flexible—or so we have been assured, and I’m hopeful that’s true.

We could use part of [the funds] for accelerating graduation: summer courses might actually help students either get back on track or accelerate their path to graduation. The other half, again to use strategically, [could go towards] replenishing some of the funds that have been lost in housing, dining, and other auxiliary enterprises—but on the condition that the campuses not raise prices in those areas, over the time that the federal funds are available to us, as a way of shifting some of the emphasis in a little bit more balanced fashion from just tuition, just fees, to that total cost of attendance. I think that [total cost of attendance] reflects a significant amount of the debt that students do take on. And if we can keep those costs in check, that will be significant progress.



6. In the same op-ed, you write that the UNC system is “making the transfer from community college an easier and more reliable option for earning an affordable degree.” What are some of the initiatives that aim to improve transfer students’ experience?

Everyone over here is sort of tired of hearing about common course numbering because it’s kind of a geeky subject in some ways I suppose, but having served two and a half years as president of Community Colleges, it was a recurring theme that I heard. I visited all 58 colleges in my first year on the job and it must have come up at 50 of the 58: Why can’t we get the university system to have a system of common course numbering—if just for the entry-level coursework?

Well, there’s no good reason why other than it requires some work. And I’m pleased to say that our team here at the system office and academicians across the system are pitching in, they’re figuring out how to make this happen. It’s going to be critical for community college transfers, but also for a large number of students who transfer within the university system.

And I wish I could remember the percentage, but it is a surprisingly high percentage of our students who start one place and go elsewhere. Well, they run into the same thing [losing out on hard-earned credits]. And they, in many ways, lack a voice.

It’s common sense, it’s going to save students time and money.

But, having been elected to the State Board of Community Colleges in 1997 when the first articulation agreement was put into place, and chairing the UNC Board of Governors in 2014, when the second version went into place—I count that as something I’m very proud of because I worked with then-president Ross to accelerate its completion. Transfer students are never at the top of the list of things to do. This whole issue is of long-term interest to myself.

Now, are these [initiatives] going to solve every issue? No. But it’s going to be a significant step forward. It’s common sense, it’s going to save students time and money. Do we need to improve advising at both the community college and university level, related to this? Yes. Do students need to have a little bit better idea of which major they want to pursue, which institutions are they most interested in studying at? Yes. There are various pieces that will help, but common course numbering is going to take us a lot further towards that goal of easing the struggle of transfer students.



7. The university system is required by state law to provide publicly accessible university financial data. When will that data be available?

I know our CFO Jennifer Haygood, who came with me from the community colleges, very much has the community college mindset about stretching the dollar, who we serve, and who we’re accountable to. [Providing publicly accessible financial data] was an effort of hers that she mentioned to me some time back and I don’t know what she has posted. But when we’re able to fully compile this “All Funds” budget, [it] will be public. Let me go into a little bit of detail on this because, normally it’s not too hard to get the data about state appropriations. But [that data] doesn’t encompass, of course, federal funds, private dollars, grants, everything that goes into a campus budget.

And so in that sense, I don’t really think the Board of Governors, or many boards of trustees—much less the public—have had that chance to look at all of that put together.

So, what we are doing, and I think this will be not only in service of transparency but just better decision-making, is to have that full picture; the chancellor would present [the budget] to the Board of Trustees, thus involving the Board of Trustees more in that process, so they can [have] a better level of governance there, as opposed to just relying on the Board of Governors to catch something. But it would certainly be shared after it had gone through the Board of Trustees, shared with the Board of Governors, compiled by institution and by system. So, I think, in terms of transparency and financial data, once we have the All Funds budget by campus, that will be exponentially better.



8. Cost-cutting wherever possible is more needed than ever, are there any plans to scale back on administrative costs?

Right now we have underway [what] we’ve entitled the “workforce growth analysis.” We’ve pulled down what data we have available, and shared it with the campuses for textual reasons and asked them to respond with: Is this data accurate? If not, why not? If so, can you please explain the context by which this has occurred? There’s a great deal of interest on the board about this question, and so we’re trying to wrestle it to the ground with some hard data.

I think all of our guts would tell us that there has been administrative growth, depending on what period of time you’re looking at—I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. Now, there are fair points to be made about 70 percent of our budget is personnel: The modern university requires a fair amount of administration, these are small to medium to even large cities, if you will.

The costs of federal compliance requirements are significant. I don’t know that it’s been updated but I’ll never forget the Vanderbilt study which showed essentially 10 percent of the costs of higher ed was compliance with federal regulations. Again, I can’t attest to that as being 100 percent accurate or as high or low—I don’t really know—except to say that you certainly want compliance with a certain amount of health, safety, civil rights—the things that we agree on in this country that you ought to be accountable for.

But there’s a lot on top of that that requires this administrative apparatus. Now, the question becomes: “Okay, let’s separate that from what’s optional, what’s been added on, and what doesn’t necessarily enhance the student experience, or our ability to conduct research, public service, etc.”

My sense is that when the numbers are finalized on the workforce growth analysis, they’ll show administrative growth. We’ve got to figure out a strategy to turn that around because, as you know, [in] my contract with the university my compensation is largely incentive-based. One of the key metrics is a cost-productivity measure.

So the good news is: I’m highly motivated to address this issue. And I would be anyhow because the biggest concern of ordinary people is the cost of higher education, and that is not compatible with continued growth in administration. To address one you’ve got to address the other. But I think that’s part of the smart approach that the board took with my incentive-based compensation is to motivate me to zero-in on that, in addition to improving graduation rates and some other key goals of the entire state.



9. The university system has made progress in ensuring that free expression and thought are allowed to flourish on campus. Most UNC schools, for example, have a “green light” free speech rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. But there is still work to be done—there are still four schools that do not have a green light. And some students have reported that they self-censor in order to avoid a bad grade or other negative repercussions. What are concrete steps the system can take to further protect free speech? 

I’m concerned about this because I hear anecdotally from students, parents [that] this is the case. I think it probably reflects a larger cultural issue right now, to some extent, but it is antithetical to the foundation of what higher education should be. A robust and respectful debate is all part of the growth a college student should experience, hopefully will experience.

If you feel silenced, if you feel intimidated in some way, then that’s a problem. The survey done at Chapel Hill by three professors, it was very interesting to me that it suggested that it was, students, peers, effectively policing speech more so than professors. What I want to do, and the board has shown a great deal of interest in this issue, is expand that survey throughout the system. It may show different issues at different campuses, I don’t know.

But I think it’s been an effective discussion and tool for us; we know more needs to be done.

Being exposed to different viewpoints [is] foundational to what higher education should be. foundational to what higher education should be."]

Again, I come back to this being a cultural issue, that is all just accelerated by politics today, by social media today— don’t get me started on the toxicity of social media and what effects that has on students. I think [social media is] contributing in many ways to [the] mental health issues so many are experiencing—in addition to COVID stress, racial reckoning, and all the things that are going on in society today.

So, there’s the cultural issue, but I come back to a personal experience of mine when I was an undergrad at Chapel Hill. I was a small-town southern Baptist who showed up to Chapel Hill—it was a little bit of a culture shock to me. And I took a world politics course taught by an honest-to-goodness communist—this was how he identified, I’m not tossing that term out. Well, there aren’t many communists in Horseshoe, North Carolina, so this was interesting for me, somewhat alarming to my parents. It turned out to be a great course because he challenged my beliefs, essentially forced me to think about why I believed what I did and articulate it. It sharpened my critical thinking skills.

Being exposed to different viewpoints [is] foundational to what higher education should be. Where there is a lack of diversity of viewpoints though, that’s a huge blind spot. Where there is intolerance for alternative viewpoints, it’s a major problem. And so this issue of free expression is one that I feel close to my heart, and I can actually see spending a great deal of time on this post-COVID. We’ve got the ball rolling, now we’ve got to elevate the issue as one of importance, and make sure that all voices are heard and respected.


10. How has your experience as a former community college president aided you in your current role? How are the two roles different? 

I think having experience in both systems, on both governing boards, and serving as president of both systems has been invaluable because I’ve seen it from a different perspective and I’ve seen the potential of what can happen when we work more closely together.

It’s certainly the most obvious on the transfer student question, but it can be so much more in terms of responding to workforce needs within the state; in thinking about down-the-road operational efficiencies in community colleges and their satellite campuses (they’re located in almost every county in the state). It’s a wonderful infrastructure for us to try to reach some underrepresented populations with programming that draws on the best of the university and community college locations. There’s a bunch of examples like that of where I think some creative thinking could produce some real results.

The other key ingredient in that is a willingness to embrace one another. Because, let’s face it, the university might sometimes look down on community colleges, if I’m being candid. And community colleges have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder about the university, if I’m being candid. And I say that as someone who loves both so hopefully I can get by with that.

But if we can get past that, with some trust, which hopefully I can lend some credibility to that, and some innovative thinking—a lot of good could result because there needs to be more coordination throughout North Carolina’s education spectrum. There’s a lot of siloed thinking, and part of it is just organizational behavior, it’s nothing malicious that I’ve ever seen. But if we have people with experience— with feet in both worlds—I think you might see it differently.

Shannon Watkins is senior writer at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.