Most of our state’s 16 public universities are thriving but the UNC Board of Governors and our General Assembly continue to look for solutions at struggling campuses in smaller communities and those with larger minority enrollments. Declining enrollments, financial mismanagement and academic problems too often surface in many of these schools and beg solutions.
Senator Tom Apodaca has proposed legislation to help these universities attract more students, while at the same time addressing the mounting debt many students incur. His suggestion is to freeze tuition at targeted universities at $500 per semester for eight consecutive semesters, perhaps a good starting point for a long-overdue conversation.
Leaders have known for years about problems in these universities but have deferred serious consideration to fixing them because they necessarily raise questions of race, tradition, faculty and administrative personnel, admission standards, academic rigor and campus culture – issues guaranteed to be both controversial and divisive. While we nibble around the edges of the problems we do great disservice to the institutions, the students and the taxpayers of our state.
Hard questions need answering. Why are students choosing to attend other public universities instead of these schools? Many minority students who might previously have attended are gaining admission to other institutions within the system and matriculate to them. Many White and Asian students don’t even apply to these schools. Do they believe they can’t receive the quality of instruction at HBUs? Do they not feel they would fit into the prevailing culture on these campuses? Do these schools not offer specialty majors and advanced degrees sufficiently attractive to students?
Apodaca’s proposals also raise questions. Will reduced tuition necessarily result in more enrollments? Does cheap tuition send the message of lesser quality instruction? Does it also accompany lower admission standards? Will it really lower the real cost of delivery in higher education? If not, who is going to pay for the reduced revenues to these schools? Are taxpayers willing to absorb the projected $60 to $80 million increase in the state budget?
We are not ready to give up and close these universities, especially those in the northeastern, southeastern and far western parts of our state. Further, the suggestion to change the names of these schools dishonors the rich heritage of educators like Dr. Thomas Conway (ECSU), Robert Lee Morrison (WCU), James Shepard (NCCU), Simon Green Atkins (WSSU) and Dr. E. E. Smith (FSU). These heroic and dedicated educators devoted their lives to ensuring access and education to the poor and disadvantaged, and we strongly suspect these founders would be leading the charge to make needed changes to assure they survive and thrive.
A cursory examination of leaders in education, business, politics, the arts and nonprofit sectors demonstrate the value these institutions have played in their personal development. That said, none of our public universities can live on past accomplishments. Current circumstances, especially in our historic minority and smaller universities, mandate that changes are needed, perhaps significant changes. It is time for our Board of Governors, educators, legislators and leaders from all races and disciplines come to the table in a spirit of finding solutions to ensure these struggling universities can be viable for the future.
Tom Campbell is the Executive Producer and Moderator of N.C. Spin.