For someone who has risen from his own liberal arts education to become governor of North Carolina, it comes with surprise and disappointment that the state’s new chief executive would have such a low opinion of the diverse offerings found among Tar Heel colleges and universities.
Speaking recently with former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett on Bennett’s national talk radio show, Gov. Pat McCrory sounded as if he’d taken a chapter from a bygone era and was prepared to force — via funding pressures — a curriculum mandate on universities to produce a workforce desired by the state’s business and industry interests.
In stark language reminiscent of state-run economies found in the former Soviet bloc, McCrory castigated the “educational elitists” for misdirecting North Carolina’s education needs. For the record, those “elitists” McCrory referred to are the same ones who envisioned and built one of the most successful and well-regarded education systems in the country — a system recognized internationally for turning out graduates who excel in a variety of professions.
McCrory seems fixated on current economic troubles in a state with a high unemployment rate that he was elected to reduce. Apparently, he’s ready to try anything, including installing his version of education at state colleges. He pressed his point by targeting the gender studies curriculum at UNC-Chapel Hill, a language course and philosophy majors, and in effect, issued a general slight to the liberal arts education model that has served this state and its citizens so well.
McCrory told Bennett that his staff is at work on legislation to redefine how funding is appropriated to the state’s universities and community colleges, to apparently drive the focus of higher education in another direction “not based upon how many butts are in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.”
A blistering condemnation of the governor’s remarks from a broad representation of educators, officials and citizens has been heartening and well-deserved. Most have defended the state’s colleges and universities and the value of a liberal arts education that teaches students critical thinking skills and how to adapt to worldwide changes occurring now as well as those 10, 20 or 30 years from now.
While McCrory’s objective may have been to challenge academia to refocus on careers to help ease the high jobless rate of recent graduates, he ignored the elephant in the room: Joblessness among current college graduates is a recent and, though painful, a relatively short-term problem. Its genesis is not a university system that has failed students. Rather, students can’t find jobs because of what happened after the nation’s financial markets turned out to be little more than a Ponzi scheme, driven by greed and corruption, that collapsed our economy. The result is the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression — and its effects include unemployment and slow growth.
North Carolina doesn’t need to restructure its university system because of the financial collapse of 2008. In fact, that would be a huge mistake. This state and nation have been through difficult economic periods in the past. We’ve also come through them and grown stronger. And our colleges and universities — thanks in part to a liberal arts education — continue to turn out productive, problem-solving graduates who have contributed to those recoveries.
But McCrory has an agenda to keep. And without any real ideas about how to stimulate the state’s economy, he’s apparently picked a scapegoat. Since he can’t fix unemployment with visionary strategies or legislation, he’s turned to blaming our university curriculums for producing graduates who can’t find work in today’s miserable job market.
Granted, colleges and universities should be and are constantly re-evaluating and updating their curriculums and majors. Courses are offered because they have value to students’ lives, value to the marketplace and value to the quality of life that North Carolina has grown famous for. Contrary to what McCrory would have us believe, however, curricula have and do change to match what students need to find work and to live productive lives.
His view that some courses are a waste of time and money is an ominous revelation that he lacks the vision to see beyond his own narrow objectives. That’s not a redeeming quality for a governor.
His idea to turn universities into some form of labor mill is but a knee-jerk reaction to the issues of unemployment the state and nation face. We urge citizens to prevail on elected representatives to prevent this executive mandate to dismantle the rich legacy of higher education in North Carolina — our cornerstone institution.