Tom Campbell: Time to re-examine 16-campus UNC system

  • Posted: Thursday, April 4, 2013 1:29 p.m.
    UPDATED: Sunday, April 7, 2013 8:53 a.m.

Senate suggestions that now might be a good time to consider the elimination or consolidation of one or more of the UNC 16-campus system drew immediate and passionate opposition, some calling it a war on public universities. William Link, in his biography of Bill Friday, reminds us the current UNC System was born in controversy.

Winds of change in higher education started in the late 1950’s. The 1931, three-campus structure gave way to six campuses in the early 1960’s, then ultimately the approval of the current 16-campus system in 1971.


In the intervening years North Carolina saw education wars never before experienced: regional jealousies, gubernatorial and legislative intervention, parochialism from existing schools, political infighting and governance struggles abounded.

If this wasn’t warfare, the differences were largely semantic.

Those winds of change are again blowing, suggesting a re-examination of higher education. It must begin by acknowledging the revolution changing the very nature of education. No longer are yesterday’s instruction methods, on-campus residential or curriculum requirements necessary or even desirable.

It is time to review and revise the mission for each school. Should all be universities? How many should be research universities? Should all offer post-graduate degrees? How many law schools, engineering schools, medical schools and other specialty programs do we need and can we afford?

We must couple our commitment for adequate funding with an honest examination of the purpose of higher education, including course offerings, student counseling, administrative efficiency, special needs, roadblocks to timely graduation and costs.

Not every student needs to go to university, but every student should have the opportunity to attain the highest level of education they desire and can achieve, understanding performance expectations must be high and enforced.

For too long we have refused to honestly address issues in our historically black universities. These schools were included and given university status to forge the 1971 compromise, but our state has neither provided the necessary resources nor have we demanded sufficient accountability from them. SAT admission scores of these schools are well below most other universities, and their six-year graduation rate is sad. Either they admit too many who are unqualified for college or the schools fail to provide necessary support.

Segregation ended about 50 years ago, but too many UNC schools don’t reflect that in enrollment, instructors or administrators.

There hasn’t been a single white chancellor in historically black universities, nor has there been an African American chancellor at UNC, NC State, ECU or other predominantly white universities.

We should minimize existing silos between universities and community colleges. Better cooperation and coordination might logically lead to consolidation, especially in poorly attended, underperforming institutions.

Former UNC Board of Governors chair Hannah Gage concluded:

“So a discussion of downsizing, repurposing or redesigning parts of the university is not inappropriate. But the topic is complex, nuanced and not just one of economics, and needs to be done in a balanced thoughtful way that truly serves the state and its people; it needs to be done outside of politics as much as possible, and therein lies the danger of having it now.”

She is right. The legislature is not the proper forum and this session won’t provide nearly enough time, but clearly the winds of change are blowing and we should thoughtfully and carefully respond.

Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues airing. on WFMY-TV and WGSR. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.

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