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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

McCrory gets a painful education

One would have thought that Pat McCrory, the new governor of North Carolina, is a savvy politician. His gaffe yesterday about the UNC System makes me wonder. While commenting on employers in North Carolina that cannot find qualified workers, McCrory angered people who have liberal arts degrees, professors in those fields, women, and African-Americans. That's quite an accomplishment for an experienced politician. Today he knows more than he knew yesterday about what to say, how to say it, and most importantly what not to say as governor.

Aside from McCrory's gaffe, there is a substantive question here. The UNC System gets 12% of the annual state budget. Some parts of the system are more dependent on state money than others. Faculty in the hard sciences and engineering can usually get research contracts and grants. It's not as easy for faculty in liberal arts to get similar contracts and grants. Consequently the liberal arts programs draw on tax dollars to a disproportionate extent. (The UNC-CH community complained strongly about McCrory's comments; we didn't hear a peep from NCSU.) Organizations and people receiving tax dollars must anticipate that they will be challenged from time to time. Sometimes the challenges are overtly political or even ridiculous. That's the price of political funding. Almost all sane persons would agree that filling jobs is not the sole mission of the UNC System, but filling jobs has historically been one of several contexts within which the General Assembly has funded the system. This debate over roles of the system is not new and not inappropriate.

Should every citizen of this state be reasonably competent in language skills and reasoning -- two foci of a four-year liberal arts degree? Definitely, but we will never have the financial resources for the UNC System to be the primary provider of such education. We must demand that middle schools and high schools do their part and give them the resources to do it properly. I learned to read, analyze, synthesize, and write before I entered university. So should everyone. Some high school graduates, but only some, can refine those skills in a four-year liberal arts program. I don't accept the argument that a liberal arts degree should be quasi-universal any more than a science or business degree should be.

As to filling jobs, let's look in the correct direction. It's time to reallocate some state funding from the UNC System to the Community College System, which is clearly better at vocational training but has been held back by low social esteem and little support in the General Assembly. That's so unfortunate. I believe there are excesses and redundancies in the UNC System that we can cut. Through mismanagement and misbehavior, the UNC-CH College of Arts and Sciences put itself in the crosshairs. For better or worse, that's where the conversation will start -- but I hope the conversation is thoughtful, not McCrory-like.

By the way, the most popular major at UNC-CH is Biology. Given the ongoing employment opportunities in healthcare, UNC-CH is clearly meeting a need there.