Wilmington Star News
Published: December 9, 2012
UNCW stacks up well against peer schools
By Pressley Baird, Pressley.Baird@StarNewsOnline.com
Just over a year into Chancellor Gary Miller’s tenure, and during a time when higher education institutions are regarded with a healthy heaping of skepticism, the University of North Carolina Wilmington wants to cement its identity.
Some of its methods look internally, such as a rebranding campaign deemed “Dare to Soar” that has the faculty and staff speaking the same language.
Some tactics go across the country, using other schools as benchmarks to figure out how UNCW stacks up – and where it could improve.
And some plans stay close to home, building an office aimed at defining how Wilmington interacts with UNCW and vice versa.
The StarNews has spent the past two months talking to university officials, community members, business leaders and students about UNCW’s identity and what lies ahead.
If you’re looking for the by-the-numbers take on how the University of North Carolina Wilmington is doing, come see Lisa Castellino.
She’s the assistant vice chancellor of institutional research and assessment. In layman’s terms, she’s leading the team that makes up “part of the university’s holistic approach to understanding who it is and who it wants to be,” she said.
Castellino does that with data, finding and examining the numbers behind things such as how many students graduate from the school in four years and what different departments spend on research. She then compares what she finds to other schools in the university’s peer group, made up of more than a dozen schools similar to UNCW in size, mission and the quality of students.
Her research is the driving force behind the common data set, a multiple-page document that helps solidify schools’ spots on various “best of” lists. UNCW can tout that it’s one of the best schools in the Southeast, or that it’s one of the best values in higher education, because of this data – rankings that attract both curious high school students and their families to the school.
UNCW keeps a strong percentage of the students it enrolls as freshmen, and many of those freshmen graduate within four years.
In research terms, those are a school’s retention and graduation rates, and making sure they’re strong is key to having a quality university, Castellino said. UNCW is in the top of its peer group when it comes to retention and graduation rates.
UNCW also has undergraduate and graduate students doing research in almost every department on campus, Castellino said.
In fact, “it’s difficult to pinpoint a department that doesn’t have some level of research happening,” she said.
That much research is rare for a university of UNCW’s size, Castellino said. UNCW is also unique in including undergraduates in that research.
UNCW has a student to faculty ratio of 16 to 1 – evidence that there is a campuswide commitment to good teaching, Castellino said.
But faculty salaries don’t reflect commitment, she said. She believes they should be higher.
A report presented in October to the faculty senate compares salaries of UNCW professors and professors at their peer schools in 38 different academic disciplines. UNCW professors make less than their counterparts in 25 of those disciplines. Sometimes the difference is small. A theater professor at UNCW makes an average of $62,214, while theater professors at peer schools average $63,020. Sometimes it’s much bigger. A chemistry professor at UNCW makes an average of $69,522; chemistry professors at peer schools average $78,272.
In Castellino’s eyes, part of that burden falls with the state legislature. In 2010-11, the N.C. General Assembly cut UNCW’s budget by about 16 percent, or $16.57 million.
But part of the burden should also be placed on the university. With more cuts to universities’ state funding likely, Castellino said, UNCW should develop innovative ideas to bring in revenue.
Castellino is invoking one of Chancellor Gary Miller’s pillar phrases when she says this. But she means it.
“The future is baccalaureate education,” she said. “How do you say, ‘We can’t support it’?”
At other schools, the process behind a rebranding campaign looks similar to what’s happening now at UNCW. But what comes out of those meetings will vary widely from place to place. At a time when students are bombarded with choices when it comes to higher education, schools are focusing on what sets them apart from the pack.
Take East Carolina University, which updated its own strategic plan about four years ago. Like at UNCW, that retooling came about to reflect an “up-to-the-minute, so to speak, identity,” said Mary Schulken, the university’s executive director of communication, public affairs and marketing.
“It was a very focused desire to make sure – as we went through the process of deciding what parts of our university would grow, what parts might stay the same and what parts we might not invest in anymore – to make sure that we knew what our strategic direction was,” Schulken said.
That kind of universitywide update should happen relatively frequently, in Schulken’s opinion – about every four years.
“People come and go, and you have enough new faces on your team that you really need to do that process again,” she said. “Even if you just wind up tweaking it, or in relatively the same place, make sure everybody clearly understands” the mission.
At ECU, that means emphasizing a commitment to serving the community through some of the school’s prominent programs, including health care, education and visual and performing arts, Schulken said.
In the past few years, Schulken said that emphasis has taken on an information-based storytelling goal instead of a marketing and promotions goal.
“Most top-notch students are smart enough to know the difference between promotions and good information,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure that we give them good information.”
That’s been done largely by looking at ECU’s various forms of communication – its website, its magazine – and ensuring that their stories are directly tied to the school’s strategic plan.
“It explains, ‘Here’s why you should care about this,’” Schulken said. “‘Here’s how it ties to who we are, what we do.’”
Pressley Baird: 343-2328
On Twitter: @PressleyBaird