It has been exactly 10 years since Margaret Spellings, then Secretary of Education in President George W. Bush’s administration, chaired a commission on the future of higher education. Like all good task forces, it issued a report, entitled “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education.”
“What we have learned over the last year,” the report said, “makes clear that American higher education has become what, in the business world, would be called a mature enterprise: increasingly risk-averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive.”
That’s where our story might have ended. Instead, the second act of this commission, whose members included former Gov. Jim Hunt, will play out across North Carolina as Spellings takes over as president of the University of North Carolina system. Her new job provides a chance for her to put words into action and see whether she can apply the right amount of gas, brake and clutch to our state’s public universities.
Even under the best of circumstances, this would be a difficult job. Public universities are tasked with a wide range of duties — improving access, increasing quality, maintaining affordability, easing the taxpayer burden, staying relevant — and many of these jobs can run at cross purposes to each other. Their principal consumers are young adults, people often still finding out who they are and what they want to do with their lives. It is enough to make your head spin.
Yes, higher education is an industry, but it’s not really a business. The input-output approach found in the corporate world doesn’t quite transfer to higher education. We know there’s a return on investment on college degrees, but the loop isn’t closed or even predictable. In addition, the people who pay the freight don’t necessarily get the benefits.
Spellings hasn’t helped herself. At her first news conference, she reiterated her view that being gay was a lifestyle decision. For her critics, this is just red meat, fuel on the fire. It creates a working narrative of her rigidity and will taint her more sensible ideas to bring transparency to the fog of the academy. But her real problem is this: She has a terrible Board of Governors. Yes, terrible.
Before you light the torches, let me explain. There are 32 voting members on the board, half selected by the House and half by the Senate. They are accomplished professionals, most with successful careers in medicine, law and business. I have no doubt of their sincerity and desire to serve. Individually, they may be fine. But as is often the case when you lump a bunch of individuals together, you see the collective flaws of the group.
The enabling legislation for the board says: “Members shall be selected based upon their ability to further the educational mission of The University through their knowledge and understanding of the educational needs and desires of all the State’s citizens, and their economic, geographic, political, racial, gender and ethnic diversity.”
In three critical areas, the current board falls abysmally short. First, politically: It is almost flawlessly Republican. That is no crime, and, yes, the Democrats did the same thing when they ran the show. But tit-for-tat barely works on the playground. It never succeeds in a boardroom. The result is we have a board that seems destined to merely act on the wishes of its patrons in the General Assembly. Second, from a gender standpoint, only seven members are women, though 56% of UNC System students are female. And finally, economically: The board has at least eight attorneys, but no teachers, welders or other rank-and-file workers. Politicians talk about speaking for the middle class, but maybe the middle class needs to speak for itself.
A governing board is supposed to govern. And to do so, it needs to be seen as legitimate, representing all the stakeholders. A board that lacks legitimacy is almost doomed to make ill-informed decisions, because there are not enough voices in the room asking the difficult questions.
There’s a part of me that believes public universities are a legacy product in a world of disruptive innovation. No different than the mainframe, the newspaper or the department store, they were created for and thrived in a different era. But we all know that the future requires education. So, we’ve got to figure this one out. And it starts with a better, more representative board of governors.
Finally, my 2016 predictions:
• Gov. McCrory beats Roy Cooper.
• Marco Rubio tops Hillary Clinton — or Clinton tops the rest of the GOP field.
• Year-end gas price: $2.75.
• Dow ends year at 18,700.
• Patriots top Panthers (sorry).