New strategic plan promises more with less, faculty objects

by Trevor Metcalfe – Editor in Chief – temetcal@unca.edu

UNC Asheville faculty object to a new strategic plan they said attempts to reposition state universities toward job creation and vocational training.

“As a faculty member, I strongly oppose this attempt to further weaken the autonomy of the professoriate, and do not share what seems to be a vision of education as primarily a business venture that emphasizes a vocational outcome for a university degree,” said Lora Holland, chair and associate professor in the classics department and member of the Faculty Advisory Committee overseeing a response to the strategic plan.

Faculty around the state submitted the committee response on Jan. 19, where they accused the plan of not focusing enough on promoting liberal arts curricula like those at UNCA.

A coalition of UNC administrative officials, state legislators, board of governors members and owners and operators of North Carolina businesses like Biltmore Farms and Duke Energy make up the two primary committees overseeing the draft of the proposal. Initial work on the plan started in October, and the committee released the latest proposal draft on Jan. 16.

The plan suggests five areas of the public university process to focus on in the coming years including: setting degree attainment goals responsive to state needs; strengthening academic quality; serving the people of North Carolina; maximizing efficiencies and ensuring an accessible and financially stable university. The plan authors suggest strategies like retaining students and strengthening the graduation rate, recruiting more non-traditional students and promoting online learning.

Faculty from around the state formed the advisory committee after they noticed a lack of direct faculty input on the strategic plan, according to Anne Whisnant, deputy secretary of faculty governance at UNC Chapel Hill.

“Because faculty felt like there was not enough faculty voice in the process, faculty kind of protested that in the fall, and there was a faculty advisory committees that got appointed,” Wisnant said.

Wisnant said the resulting committees and boards facilitated a dialog between each other to draft the proposals and responses.

“There has been dialog, back and forth, between faculty representatives and the strategic planning body (and) President (of the UNC system Thomas) Ross,” Wisnant said.

The strategic plan’s more specific actions symbolize a clash of current views on higher education with a need for job creation and a politically-motivated sense of progress, according to UNCA math Professor Lothar Dohse.

“Our big concern is that the leadership is being siphoned off into another group that doesn’t know what they’re doing,” said Dohse, who attended the faculty assembly meeting to help draft a response to the plan.

Dohse said comments made by newly elected officials, like Gov. Pat McCrory, caused concern when they suggested a complete overhaul of state curriculum. McCrory said he would propose legislation in his term that would place emphasis on job skills and creation, instead of a liberal arts education.

Faculty also said they opposed efforts to introduce standardized tests, like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, as a way to standardize curriculum and evaluate all students.

“These responses also emphasize that tests such as the CLA are inadequate measures of educational outcomes as a whole,” Holland said.

Dohse said the potential costs of the changes also concerned faculty. Costs presented in the plan’s draft include $5 million in three years to support the College Foundation of North Carolina, and may cover some of the state government’s $4 billion needed for a backlog of repairs and renovations. Solutions suggested by the document include attempting to solicit $125 million over five years in private donations to cover costs, though the plan gives no specific budget implications from the new costs and solutions.

“The big question is the cost, and what does it do for programs that we think are pretty solid and important?” Dohse said.

Dohse said the faculty plans to find places where they can support the strategic plan, and carefully pick areas of the plan to critique. The UNC president said he may present the next draft of the plan to the UNC Board of Governors at their next meeting on Friday.

“This vision seems to be at odds with research showing that employers of all types of businesses and institutions seek to hire individuals who embody the critical thinking, communicative and writing skills, not to mention the general knowledge base, that a liberal arts education provides,” Holland said.

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