Editor’s note: Hannah Gage is a former Chair of the UNC Board of Governors. Fred Eshelman is the founder of global contract research organization PPD and a former member of the Board of Governors. They wrote this for the Higher Education Works Foundation.
The importance to North Carolina of a world-class university system cannot be stressed enough. Our state’s reputation — our ability to attract new jobs and industries, and our capacity to generate investment and opportunity for our citizens — rests heavily on the success of the University of North Carolina and its 17 campuses.
That’s why we both believe so strongly that President Margaret Spellings and the talented chancellors who run each campus deserve full-throated support as they carry out the valuable work of educating students and expanding economic growth.
Each of our public institutions is unique, with a different mission and different strengths. The legislature and the Board of Governors are right to ensure that every campus has a well-defined set of goals, with measurable outcomes and real accountability. That kind of responsible oversight is the reason the consolidated university system was formed in the first place.
Partisan politics from the legislature and Board of Governors should not get in the way of sound decisions and support for our universities.
Good governance is very different from micromanaging. Good governance means advancing the focused strategic plan that was unanimously adopted by the UNC Board of Governors earlier this year — a plan that tackles big challenges in affordability, degree completion, and research excellence. It means empowering talented campus leaders and world-class faculty to do their best work, to create value for the citizens of North Carolina.
Good governance means having the discipline to stay focused, to avoid distractions and pointless political gestures so that the Board can devote time to meaningful improvements in the University’s core mission.
It means supporting crisp missions for each university that do not overlap beyond the basics and do not constantly creep. It also means recognizing that research intensive schools are different and that our flagships should be enabled.
Good governance means advocating for the resources to keep our public universities strong. In contrast to previous years, North Carolina has a surplus. What better investment opportunity is there than education for all who want it and are willing to work for it?
Philanthropy has a role to play in that effort. UNC Chapel Hill just launched the state’s largest-ever fundraising campaign, highlighting the growing role of private support. Companies, foundations, and individual donors are more likely to give when our universities have stable leadership and clear lines of authority.
We can also bolster the innovation, economic development, and faculty excellence that have helped North Carolina punch far above its weight in attracting national research dollars. Our state has emerged as a leader in medicine, bioengineering, big data and software because our leading research universities have attracted huge investments from companies, federal agencies, and private foundations. Every campus in the state makes significant contributions to our regional economies through focused research programs and economic development targeted to emerging needs.
They can only do that when they have the freedom to innovate; the resources to hire and retain great faculty; and the confident support of citizens and lawmakers who recognize the long-range impact of a better-educated North Carolina.
There will always be partisan differences in our state, but our university leaders need to stay on point with their missions of educating the people of North Carolina and preparing them for good jobs. Differences on issues should be debated openly and respectfully and not limited and edited by political correctness. Only with full and honest conversations will we find our common ground.
We all benefit when our public universities perform well and we all stand to gain from a state that is thriving in the fields of the future.
Our universities are training next-generation workers for well-paying jobs in North Carolina while advancing science and medicine to benefit all. Surely we can put aside pettiness and all contribute to greatness.