UNC System President Tom Ross speaks during the UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions meeting Wednesday, January 23, 2013. A group of education, business and government leaders discussed about the UNC system’s 5-year plan, including budget proposals to pay for it. Next to him, left, is Peter Hans, chair of the UNC System Board of Governors.
Modified Thu, Jan 24, 2013 01:30 AM
By Jane Stancill – firstname.lastname@example.org
CHAPEL HILL — Faculty groups say the proposed five-year strategy for the UNC system has a top-down approach that could wrest curriculum out of faculty hands and impose flawed standardized tests onto university students.
Student leaders have joined faculty to criticize parts of the 104-page draft report, which aims to produce more degree earners, invest in target research areas and push aggressively into online learning. The plan is expected to go before the UNC Board of Governors next month for approval, and budget estimates have already been developed around the plan’s priorities.
On Wednesday, the UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions gave its blessing to the report, despite some faculty objections.
The systemwide Faculty Assembly and a newly created Faculty Advisory Council warn that unless UNC makes clear that the faculty is in charge of academics, the system’s campuses could invite scrutiny by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits higher education institutions.
Catherine Rigsby, chairwoman of the Faculty Assembly and a geology professor at East Carolina University, said the report calls on the system to be more innovative and entrepreneurial, yet prescribes standards and one-size-fits-all policies. But students aren’t widgets, and the university is not the factory floor, she said, conjuring up an analogy of the auto industry.
“We have to remember that we’re not manufacturing automobiles,” Rigsby said. “We’re not even producing degrees, which is what we call it in the strategic plan. We’re educating people, and that’s very, very complicated, and it’s not something that we can standardize.”
UNC President Tom Ross said that he is listening to faculty and that some clarifications may be made to the report. Details will be fleshed out with faculty input during implementation, he said.
“We just have to be more efficient with the dollars that we have,” Ross said. That will require changes, so that the UNC system can take in more students while keeping tuition affordable.
‘Use space better’
The report, for example, proposes establishing minimum competencies systemwide for general education courses, consolidating some low-production academic programs and setting guidelines for the size of classes. That doesn’t mean that every economics class in the UNC system will have to have at least 100 students, Ross said. But it does mean the system will expect campuses to combine and enlarge class sections when it makes sense.
“It’s not about trying to get rid of faculty or anything like that. It’s trying to use the space better,” Ross said. “If we’re going to meet our attainment goal, we’re going to have to be teaching more students somehow. If we grow as a state to 13 million people, we’re going to have to have more ability to educate people. So this is a way of getting more efficient.”
Though faculty and students praised the report’s emphasis on keeping tuition low and improving educational quality, they disagree on other proposals.
They sound major alarms about a suggested pilot project to test students using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized exam that measures critical thinking, analytic reasoning and problem solving.
The Faculty Advisory Council said the CLA is an inadequate measurement that correlates with SAT scores and therefore provides little new information about students.
“We reject the notion that the industrial education complex can devise better assessment tools than faculty,” the council’s response to the report said. “We reject the idea that a single standardized test will provide better assessment of student learning or better transparency.”
Ross said the CLA would not be the only test given to UNC students, who would also be assessed by faculty in their major areas of study.
UNC aims to become a national leader in so-called competency-based learning, or core learning outcomes in general education. Faculty will help determine those, Ross said, putting UNC ahead of the curve. It’s not about forcing conformity across the 17 campuses.
“There’s nothing in that plan that prescribes a standard set of courses across our system,” Ross said. “If people read it that way, I think they’ve read it incorrectly.”
The faculty groups also raised concerns about the focus on certain research areas mostly in science and technology to the neglect of social sciences and the humanities. And they took issue with the report’s recommendation for the system to hire “rainmaker” faculty who would bring millions in research grants.
The Faculty Advisory Council said resources should be focused on retaining current faculty and hiring young, talented faculty through the normal hiring process.
The council’s response to UNC’s report said, “new star faculty are extremely costly and their hire often results in dysfunctional departments where the emphasis is on new faculty earning grants rather than collaboration and student success.”
It’s unclear how the UNC report will be received by the Republican-led legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory.
The proposed budget request is for a 7.6 percent increase for the UNC system by the fifth year, compared to this year’s budget.
The spending increase would be $74 million in 2013-14. By the fifth year, the new spending would build to $267 million over this year’s budget, or roughly $200 million, taking into account UNC savings through efficiency measures.
The strategy includes raising the state’s degree attainment rate, defined as adults with at least a four-year degree, from 28 percent to 32 percent in the next five years. That could produce an additional 93,000 degree earners and put North Carolina on a path to be one of the top 10 most educated states by 2025.
“This isn’t about more spending necessarily, alone,” Ross said. “This is about an investment that will pay off for the state.”
As for the faculty unrest, Ross said change is difficult and there is always tension between faculty and administration.
“It is a big hill to climb,” he said. “A, we may not get the resources. B, we’ve got to work well with faculty and the campuses. It can’t be a system-driven-only plan, and it won’t be.”