Other voices: UNC system’s moving target

Published 7:05 pm Friday, November 11, 2016

For the UNC system — a gem in public higher education — the future is now. The system’s 17 units have moved into the 21st century, but the passage hasn’t been uniformly smooth. Upheavals in the economy and politics have made for a bumpy ride.

The recession played havoc with North Carolina’s education funding, from the university level down to preschool. And then it got worse, as lawmakers in Raleigh decided to lift the hood and start tinkering with the innards of the university system.

Not that some reforms weren’t in order. They were — and still are. It’s a big, sometimes unwieldy system, and especially at the larger institutions, crammed with multiple layers of bureaucracy. It could use a remake, a slimming down — but that should be done by higher-education professionals, not by politicians on an ideological mission. The university should be insulated from that kind of pressure.

And it appears that the new UNC system President Margaret Spellings is trying to do just that. We hope her track record of success in Republican administrations — including her stint as secretary of education in George W. Bush’s second term — will help her succeed in that mission.

Spellings was in Fayetteville last week to take part in a public forum at Fayetteville State University, held to gather input for a strategic plan for the university system. The university board of governors is focusing on access, affordability and efficiency, student success, economic impact and community engagement, and excellent and diverse institutions.

We spoke with Spellings on Thursday, and she said she planned to address the system’s multiple layers of bureaucracy in the strategic plan. We expect it will shrink and hope resources will be added to the classrooms and research facilities instead. In the end, that’s what Spellings and the university board of governors should be deciding — not the General Assembly.

The new strategic plan needs to be a good one, and it needs to hit a fast-moving target. North Carolina is growing rapidly and becoming increasingly diverse. Our universities are training students for new kinds of jobs that are the hallmark of our high-tech 21st century. They are serving a society in which a high school education is no longer sufficient for success. Advanced study is essential for factory jobs, construction work and just about anything else that is above the bottom rungs of the service industries.

A great university system, accessible to all our state’s residents, is the key to North Carolina’s success.

— Fayetteville Observer