CHAPEL HILL – It was standing-room only in Chapel Hill’s Spangler Center on Thursday, as the UNC Board of Governors got its first look at a draft of the strategic plan drawn up last fall by a controversial committee–a plan that could redefine the very nature of education in North Carolina.

Click here to read the plan in full.

“Our Time, Our Future”

The economic situation is improving in North Carolina, but it’s still not ideal—and as system president Tom Ross said Thursday, higher education remains in a period of great transition.

“Times have changed, (and) they’re going to continue to change,” he said. “It’s our time to figure out what are the key pieces that need to remain the same, and what are the pieces that need to change, so that we can continue to deliver real value to the students and to the people of North Carolina.”

With that in mind, university leaders are focusing their efforts this semester on finalizing a new strategic plan to govern the UNC system’s development through 2018. It’s entitled “Our Time, Our Future: The UNC Compact with North Carolina,” and the title implies the overarching mission: to shape the university system—given existing constraints—with an eye toward serving North Carolina’s immediate and long-term practical needs, economic and otherwise.

“We know about the economy, we know about rapid technology change, we’ve talked about rapid technology shifts…(and) we all know that we’re competing, not anymore with just border states, but globally,” Ross said. “There’s a proliferation of different kinds of delivery methods and different kinds of organizations…

“We’ve got to figure all of that out, and we’ve got to do it in an environment which–I think rightly so–demands greater accountability and improved performance.”

The 66-page draft released this week constitutes the first three parts of what will be a five-part plan, outlining how the UNC system can move forward in the coming years to meet “five high-priority goals”: graduating a higher percentage of North Carolinians; improving academic quality; serving the people of the state; maximizing efficiency; and maintaining affordability, accessibility, and financial stability.

All that in the midst of a still-tenuous economic recovery, coupled with a nationwide spike in student loan debt that’s become more and more of a hot-button issue. Compounding that is a rapid transformation in the nature of higher learning: online classes are becoming increasingly common, and universities are seeing more demand from ‘non-traditional’ students, including older students and military personnel.

Each of those challenges makes it harder for students in the UNC system to graduate on time—if at all. The new five-year plan attempts to counter that, by making it a priority to increase the percentage of North Carolinians with college degrees.

“The degree-attainment goal isn’t just about the University,” Ross said Thursday.  “It’s about the state of North Carolina’s future, and about the workforce needs of the state, and how (we’re) going to play our part in being sure that we have an educated workforce that can do the jobs of tomorrow.”

Currently about 30 percent of North Carolinians have degrees; the plan is to raise that to 32 percent by 2018.

“The Fundamental Infrastructure”

In order to accomplish that, the plan directs UNC to focus its efforts on recruiting veterans and community college students; retaining current students and bringing back those who leave without a degree; and—perhaps most notably—promoting online education, also known as “distance education” or “e-learning.”

UNC launched its online program in 2007—and now, barely five years later, Academic Affairs senior vice president Suzanne Ortega says it’s become an indispensable component of the university’s future.

“E-learning is not a goal in itself,” she said Thursday. “It is the fundamental infrastructure and strategy we need for meeting our other important academic goals.”

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp–who incorporated online components into the class he taught last semester–agrees. “The whole online-education thing has come to a point where everybody needs to embrace it,” he says. “It’ll change the way we do things in the classroom…

“You know, we used to think that online education was just going to be about sending text. It’s not about that anymore…(and) I think as people get more and more accustomed to the fact that it’s here to stay, you’re going to see the quality and the quantity increase.”

And in keeping with the larger mission of service to the state, the strategic plan calls for a targeted commitment to promoting research in a few specific areas—ranging from health care to energy to military technology—that can best promote a “return on investment” and improve the state’s economy.

“We are good at a lot of things, and we can be very good at several things, and we can be great at a few things,” says Chris Brown, UNC’s vice president for research and graduate education. “But we can’t be great at everything. So we’ve got to make some targeted investments.”

Whither Descartes

Most of the specific aims laid out in the proposal seem non-controversial, or at least they were in Thursday’s meeting of the Board. But everything in the strategic plan—from the targets of research to the degree attainment goals to the emphasis on distance learning—rests on the single foundation of economic growth and jobs: shaping the university around the goal of getting as many North Carolinians to work, as soon as possible.

And if there was a clash on Thursday, it was over that deeper philosophical question: is a “quality education” defined simply by the extent to which it leads to a job—or is there more to a “quality education” than that?

Speaking at Thursday’s meeting, Suzanne Ortega said the university’s mission should be to provide students with the specific training their potential employers might need.

“Our students deserve the opportunity to master precisely those skills that employers tell us are most important, both to active career lives (and) to success as citizens,” she said.

Chancellor Thorp, on the other hand, said he’s in favor of a broader liberal arts education—and not just for its own sake.

“If a student is a junior in high school now…by the time they get out (of college) it’s five, six years from now, and the rate of change in the economy right now, with technology and migration, is so fast,” Thorp said Thursday. “We need to give students the ability (through liberal arts education) to teach themselves the jobs of the future, because we can’t prepare them for jobs that don’t exist yet–other than by doing that.”

That philosophical discussion will continue to run underneath the ongoing debate about UNC’s future—particularly since more Republicans came onto the Board of Governors in 2011, giving the Board more of an even partisan split than usual.

Partisanship aside, though, everyone’s on board with the shared goal of improving the quality of education at North Carolina—however that phrase may be defined.

“If we just turn up the crank and turn up people who can’t connect the dots, it’s not particularly helpful,” said Board member Fred Eshelman.

The Board will conclude its two-day meeting in the Spangler Center on Friday; the members will examine an updated draft of the strategic plan at their next meeting in February.