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 1950s. The 1931, three-campus structure gave way to six campuses in the early 1960s, 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 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.