Future looks bright to UNCC chancellor

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 28, 2012

With enrollment exceeding 26,000 students and applications up 20 percent over last year, the University of North Carolina Charlotte seems light years away from the veterans’ training center that started it all more than 60 years ago.

But the mushrooming research university is only about 33 miles from downtown Salisbury, and its pull is strong. The 473 Rowan students at UNC Charlotte are the largest Rowan contingent at any school in the 16-campus UNC system.

“We are your public university,” Chancellor Philip Dubois told the Salisbury Rotary Club recently — a message he is carrying on a 12-county visiting and listening tour to communities surrounding the campus. UNC Charlotte depends on you, he reminds people, for students, for resources and for support in the legislature.

The 12 counties provide more than 15,000 of the university’s students and are home to some 55,000 alumni (including 2,700 in Rowan) and 36,000 donors. Dubois is working to galvanize those forces.

He has some plum facilities and programs to tout:

• The Energy Production and Infrastructure Center, created to prepare the next generation to build and maintain power plants.

• Motorsports Research, the latest addition to the N.C. Motorsports and Automotive Research Center at UNC Charlotte that Dubois said complements the motorsports program at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.

• The PORTAL Building (Partnership, Outreach and Research for Accelerated Learning), a business and research incubator that is under construction.

• And a new football program, complete with a 15,300-seat stadium, set to start competition in the fall of 2015.

Dubois, now in his eighth year at UNC Charlotte, sat down for a Q&A interview at the Post to talk about the university’s growth and its role in educating the workers of the future. Here is an edited transcript of that interview:

Q: What’s the most exciting thing going on at UNC Charlotte right now?

A: I think the most exciting thing has to do with the growth and expansion of the campus, physically and programmatically. On the academic side, we continue to see growing interest in UNC Charlotte from all over North Carolina and even out of state. And there’s the expansion of our physical space, which is a combination of state appropriations, self-funded projects — like residence halls and dining commons — and then the major initiative into football.

When you come onto our campus, I think there’s a sense of energy and forward progress. You wouldn’t know there was a recession.

Q: How have you managed to do this in the midst of the recession?

A: On the physical side, we have benefited from the fact that many of our academic buildings were funded before the recession hit. And then the things that we’ve been building since have been residence halls, dining commons, football — which are not dependent on state appropriations. Even our PORTAL building, which is our industry-partnership building, is funded with revenues we received from the federal government for reimbursement research costs.

On the physical side, the most notable consequence of the recession is we have no projects currently in development. And that’s a source of great concern to me and to my cabinet. Because as we grow, we desperately need, for example, a new science building that can teach modern science. We’re adding 600 to 700 students a year, and no facilities are currently being planned. It takes about five years from the time a building is appropriated to the time it’s actually open, given the way the state process works.

On the operational side, … we managed very conservatively. I always told people, hope for the best, but plan for the worst. So as we had positions in the faculty and the staff come open just on the brink of that recession, we didn’t fill positions. So when the worst hit, we were ready to give back some money. We’ve given back $50 million over a four- or five-year period.

Q: Is it possible to grow too fast?

A: Yes, I suppose it is if you can’t maintain a good faculty-student ratio. But I think we’ve been able to do that. The legislature, even during the recession, was good about funding enrollment growth. …

The concern we always have about growth, though, is that the place becomes impersonal and that it doesn’t bring people together. … The way we’ve tried to think through that is make sure there are experiences like a student union that we built to bring people together, a football program that inspires people to be together. We organized around academic colleges and programs so the students, once they declare their major, are part of a community of scholars.

Before they declare their major, they’re part of what’s called the university college, which we created a few years ago to make sure every student has advising from the day they start. They aren’t just wandering around. …

Our students have a lot of challenges. Many of them are first-generation college students, so they have no role model from home. I’m a first generation college student, so I know what that’s like. …

Q: Sometimes when people talk about student loans and debt, they say not everyone needs to go to college. What do you say to those people?

A: No one should go to college before they’re ready. But I think the value of a college education, either two-year or four-year, can be proven over and over again, and many of the jobs of the future are going to require that level of education. …

They say we’re moving from the era of brawn to the era of brains. You go to any modern manufacturing plant full of IT and technical equipment — advanced manufacturing 10 years from now will not look even like it does today. …

Overall, looking at all categories of people, higher education is a good buy and a good value and important for the society. It is a public good that people have community college or a four-year degree, because those people are less likely to be on welfare, less likely to be in prison, less likely to be unhealthy, more likely to vote.

Q: Could online learning supplant the classroom?

A: I think there’s room for that, but it’s not all about knowledge anymore. It’s about a skill set that comes from being engaged with other human beings.

For example, it is going to be much more important that employees can write, think, speak, organize work in teams than any particular set of knowledge that they command at that moment. That knowledge base is going to change. … You better have learned how to learn while you’re out learning what the knowledge base is at the moment you graduate. If you graduated in biology 10 years ago, it’s not the same biology.

The other aspect of this is the hands-on experience that we can give students in a laboratory or in a facility like EPIC (Energy Production and Infrastructure Center) makes them more job ready than a lot of things. If you go into EPIC today, and you work with our Duke Energy smart grid lab, when you leave the university to go to work for Duke, you’re working on their equipment, and you’ve been trained on their equipment. …

Remember we used to say “shovel ready”? They’re kind of “job ready,” but they also have the set of skills that will allow them to learn and adapt over time.

I think you’ll see we’ve done some great experiments with online hybrid learning where, for example, we changed our introductory physics theories. We were seeing a lot of students get Ds, Fs and Ws for withdrawal because they weren’t engaged. We used a rethinking of that by the faculty, and we’ve dramatically reduced the number of Ds, Fs and Ws, and we’ve expanded the capacity to teach more students in physics. … They do pre-lecture exercises before they go into hear the faculty member’s lecture and discussion. …

One of the great myths, though, about online education is that it’s cheaper, because you substitute the cost of bricks and mortar for the cost of the technical infrastructure and the people required to support the faculty doing those kinds of course development. It’s much more expensive for online. You don’t just put your lecture notes up. You’ve got to have interactive exercises, you’ve got to have ways in which you test the students’ knowledge as they move along. …

There’s a big fundamental change in the role of faculty now in higher ed, and that’s going to cost money for universities to retool faculty to be able to do that kind of thing. I couldn’t do it today. If I had to figure out how to teach American government online, it would be a totally different thing than I used to do when I taught 400 undergraduates.