When Republicans won their legislative majorities in 2010 and expanded them in 2012, they ran on a platform of fiscal conservatism and reform. They’ve largely delivered on their promises. Tax and regulatory burdens are lower. State spending growth has been restrained. Lawmakers have implemented major changes in transportation funding and education policy, to cite just two examples.
Many liberals have responded to political changes in Raleigh with scorn, derision, or opposition. Among the most vociferous critics have been left-leaning professors firmly ensconced on campuses of the University of North Carolina system.
I think they’re wrong, but I certainly respect their right to express themselves. The phenomenon concerns me primarily because of what it says about the lack of ideological diversity on most campuses, a deficiency that doesn’t just harm conservative or libertarian students. All students need to be exposed to a range of ideas, interpretations, and schools of thought. That’s what truly liberal education is all about.
Interestingly, while politically active professors have excoriated state leaders with hyperbolic screeds, those who run UNC campuses have responded more constructively to the legislature’s demand for greater efficiency and accountability. Some felt they had no choice. But others recognized that the real cost of a UNC education — tuition and fees plus public subsidy — had been growing faster than its value to students and taxpayers.
In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the UNC system really did tighten its belt. The state’s General Fund appropriations per full-time-equivalent student had reached an inflation-adjusted $16,184 in 2008-09. By 2013-14, real General Fund spending per FTE had dropped by 20 percent, to $12,869. While UNC has offset some of the decline in state funding with higher student charges and private fundraising, it has also reduced its operating costs.
I don’t mean to suggest that the system has exhausted all opportunities for budget savings. Many professors still need to shoulder greater teaching responsibilities, for instance. But fiscal conservatives should give credit where it’s due. When it comes to efficiency, UNC has made real progress.
At least as promising, it seems to me, is the system’s new emphasis on accountability. At UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, academic departments are introducing a new measurement system this fall that provides not just a student’s grade but also data with which to put the grade in context, such as average class grades and percentiles. Student grade-point-averages will also be adjusted to reflect the difficulty of classes they take. These measures are designed to combat the rampant grade inflation that many scholars have decried for decades. In 2009, 82 percent of all the grades given at UNC-Chapel Hill were As and Bs.
More generally, the UNC system is implementing a new system for post-tenure review to ensure that longtime faculty members continue to fulfill their teaching, research, and public-service responsibilities. Instead of deferring to other professors to conduct gingerly post-tenure reviews, the new policy will require both department heads and deans to conduct serious faculty evaluations. While I don’t want to oversell this reform, it has at least the possibility of providing meaningful oversight to some of the state’s highest-paid employees.
Republican lawmakers and conservative reformers don’t disdain higher education. They simply want public colleges and universities to set higher standards, hold both students and faculty accountable for results, and deliver the highest possible value for every tax dollar spent. North Carolina has traditionally subsidized its public universities to a much greater extent than most states have. But this practice does not appear to have generated better outcomes for North Carolinians over time, according to such measures as college attendance, college graduation, or economic growth. Other states have either achieved the same results that our state did but at a lower cost to taxpayers, or achieved better results at a similar cost.
North Carolina can do better. And over the past five years, the UNC system has taken significant steps toward getting better. Politically active professors will probably disagree with my observation. That’s fine with me. I’m more interested in what chancellors and board members are doing than in what their employees are saying.
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.