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
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
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
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
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
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.