UNC President has big challenges ahead

Published July 18, 2020

By Tom Campbell

New UNC President Peter Hans starts his job in two weeks and will have his hands full. Not only will he face reopening our 16-campus university system, but larger problems loom on the horizon.
There are many, especially faculty, who don’t believe it safe to return to in-class instruction. It is hard to calculate just how many will show up for class, but serious questions are being asked how students can achieve social distancing (4 feet suggested) and wear required masks in classrooms, dorms and cafeterias. Even greater concerns surround gatherings of students on and off campus. Then there’s football games, which is both a moneymaking proposition on most campuses and a great crowd pleaser. Fall football might well be shifted to the spring.
 In addition to the health concerns, many students face family financial hardships due to COVID-19. The UNC Board of Governors froze tuitions for the coming year. Tuitions only account for 23 percent of university funding (41 percent comes from the state), but this is another strain on already tenuous budgets. Additionally, students are questioning why they should pay the same tuition for online classes they pay for in-class instruction.
The school year will have started before the legislature determines a final budget for the next two years, but with a reported $4 billion revenue shortfall count on budget cuts; it is unlikely the UNC system will escape them. And, even though the president just reversed his position for issuing visas for international students, their numbers will be diminished, losing additional revenue
After several years of turmoil and administrative interference from the UNC Board of Governors all recognize the need for President Hans to restore confidence with the respective campuses, legislators, donors and the public. New BOG chairman Randall Ramsey, along with some new faces, are providing a steadying influence, but there’s work to be done
The more long-term threat is the need to reform higher education. Between 2008-2018 tuition and fees system-wide increased 48 percent even as state funding decreased by an inflation-adjusted 13 percent. Costs must be reduced. Tough decisions lie ahead regarding student amenities, athletics (a money loser at most schools), administrative costs, building maintenance and other expenses. Further, while our system has enjoyed record enrollments the past two years the national picture is bleaker because of declining birth rates. And no one denies the increased competition from online and for-profit colleges.
Having served as chair of the UNC Board of Governors Peter Hans understands our universities and, coupled with his two years as president of our state’s 58 community colleges, has a unique perspective. Our universities and community colleges need to be less competitive and more cooperative. Perhaps the two should be combined under a new governance model, with one person overseeing both - a conversation for another day.
It makes good economic and education sense for many high school graduates to gain an associate degree or the first two years of college at a community college close to home. They can save money, make the adjustment to college and better discern career choices, then transfer to university for a bachelor’s degree and graduate courses.
If the most important function for state government is education, we need the very best leadership possible. Peter Hans is uniquely qualified to lead. We expect big things ahead.