Saturday, October 01, 2005

Erskine Bowles, meet Abraham Lincoln

posted by Rob at 10:42 AM

It is expected that Monday the University of North Carolina system will name Erskine Bowles its new president.

The announcement comes with the obligatory joke - he couldn't get elected to a post, so he found someone to appoint him to one.

Let's also get the cheap pot shot out of the way - his appointment may prove to be Clinton-like (ie. bring in the lawyers!!).

Now let's get serious. The biggest challenge Bowles will face as UNC system president is maintaining the union. The UNC system is comprised of 16 universities. Two of the largest - and most prominent - are the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (defending NCAA national basketball champions) and N.C. State (who needs grass when you have bricks).

Both Carolina and State want to, in a sense, break away from the UNC system's normal operating procedure and set their own tuition rates. As the Raleigh News & Observer puts it:
Some advocates for the schools have chafed for some time at the notion of having to operate within the confines of a large system, and of having to get permission from the Board of Governors when it comes to raising their tuition.
The N&O continues and describes life pre-BOG:
Before that board existed, the state's public universities competed against each other for public dollars, and the battles were sometimes won on the basis of legislative clout, not the setting of orderly priorities based on North Carolina's needs. The board has stopped that, with varying success to be sure.
Carolina and State not only own cults of sports personality, they also arguably own among their alumni bases some of the state's most powerful figures. Those powerful figures are in position to help force the split of UNC and NCSU from some of the rules 14 other campuses have to follow. One could argue they are seeing to secede from the union.

What's driving the fight? Money, of course. But it's not quite put in those terms. It's all about "research":

NCSU and UNC-CH leaders say it's about time. They point out that the two campuses educate nearly 30 percent of UNC system students and conduct world-class research, attracting three out of four of the system's research dollars. Increasingly, they say, the two Triangle campuses are major drivers in North Carolina's changing economy, contributing new technology and spinoff companies.

UNC-CH and NCSU also compete against other elite universities for faculty and students. To win, their leaders say, they need more money and more managerial leeway.

"The state really needs to recognize that its flagships require the tools to be competitive with both the public flagships in other states as well as the great privates," UNC-CH Chancellor James Moeser said.

Arguing for a tuition increase earlier this year, Moeser said he had in his hand recruitment offers from other universities for science professors in three departments. Thirty-two professors received job offers and 11 left, the chancellor reported.

UNC is pushing the fight (N&O notes that "NCSU partisans were quiet during the debate").

I attempt not to view every battle in political terms, but it does seem odd that the liberal flower-child that is UNC is pushing for economic freedom to better compete in a capitalist market. Then there's this, again from N&O:

Campus leaders at UNC-CH and NCSU have repeatedly pointed out that they go up against private universities with deep pockets.

"The private institutions that we compete with have exploded their endowments, have exploded their sources of funding, and their tuitions are high," Carter said.

If the two campuses own a plurality of UNC system alumni - including its most powerful and prominent - isn't it a problem of fundraising from those same alumni that is driving this issue? (As an aside, both have dues-paying alumni associations).

Instead of tapping alumni (and basketball fan) dollars they appear to instead want to target current students. Both UNC and NCSU offer affordable undergraduate tuition ($4,515 at UNC; $4,249 at NCSU). Instead of standing proudly by those numbers, both universities appear to be ashamed by them.

What's wrong with that picture?

Given their power, it's probably inevitable they will get some of what they want. It will be interesting to see, under Bowles, exactly where that line is drawn and what its ramification will be. For if two campuses can set their own rates for their own reasons, why shouldn't UNC Wilmington, UNC Asheville, or UNC Greensboro be allowed to do the same? (note the prefix in all those names).

And will will return to an era when the "state's public universities competed against each other for public dollars." Who will consistently win such a fight, the big boys are UNC Pembroke?

It could be that Bowles first job is to maintain the union. As a 2000 Bowles voter who likes him as a person, I wish him the best.


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