Volume 4 | Issue 1
Spring 2012

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Chancellor's Blog

Chancellor’s Message

Defining our role in the 21st century


Chancellor Holden Thorp

We are at a pivotal moment in American higher education. How we proceed will define our nation’s future, and Carolina, where public higher education was invented, is poised to lead the discussion.

The question for us: How do we adapt to the challenges before us? Over the next several months, our campus community will consider the answers, and we want you—as a part of that community—to join in the discussion.

A few decades ago, we wouldn’t have needed to talk. In the wake of Sputnik, our country saw the value of its public universities and government support tripled from the 1960s to 1975. That investment built the foundation for much of the prosperity that our society has since enjoyed. Advances in information technology, health care and public policy—all can be traced back in large part to work done in our universities.

But state funding for higher education nationally has dropped dramatically, from a high of $10 per $1,000 of personal income in 1976 to little more than half that, about $6, in 2012.

Will there be a Sputnik-like moment to serve as the catalyst for another funding boom? Back then, we didn’t want to fall behind the Soviets. Now, we don’t want to lose what we’ve built.

I have no doubt that our nation has the will to remain in the race. The question is whether we have the way.

The federal government faces rising mandatory expenses, debt payments and military spending. The states are taking on a greater share of the costs for Medicaid and other federal programs. Squeezed by their obligations, both lack the resources for a Sputnik redux.

And so that leaves us at the edge. If we can’t count on another Sputnik to galvanize our nation’s attention and resources, then how do we define the role of the public research university in the 21st century?

We need look no further than our own institution and state. UNC is the place that invented public higher education, and epitomizes the best of what that represents: accessibility and excellence.

We’re also able to come to the discussions from a position of relative fiscal strength. Yes, we’ve absorbed four straight years of state budget cuts, but our legislature’s overall support for higher education remained well above the national average in 2012, at $11 per $1,000 of personal income. And we have a two-year tuition plan in place to provide a predictable revenue stream, as well as a robust fundraising operation and generous donors to underpin funding for our ultimate vision.

UNC is the place that invented public higher education, and epitomizes the best of what that represents: accessibility and excellence.

There isn’t a single answer to the challenges ahead of us. We need to address all of the big issues: The nature of undergraduate education and the delicate balance of providing students with job-related skills and a worldview that prepares them for citizenship in a changing world. The financial aid system and ensuring that everyone has a fair chance at a college education. The costs of higher education and making sure that we keep both the cost and price of college as low as possible. And the story of our research and its impact, both in the near term on pressing problems facing the world and in the long term on providing a basis for education in the future.

We’re asking every segment of the Carolina community to participate. Trustees, administrators, faculty, students, staff, alumni and friends: We need all of you. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for details about how to contribute.

Regardless of where our discussions take us, you will help us find the direction.

Hark the Sound.