Defender of the Faith

Tom Ross has a really, really tough job. 10-12-11-margaret.jpg

Ross was inaugurated last week as the fifth president of the University of North Carolina system, which now has nearly 225,000 students. He has already been on the job for nine months, long enough to understand that his challenge is to continue providing higher education to more and more sons and daughters of North Carolina at a time of fewer and fewer resources.

I do not know anyone who does not think that public education at all levels is under serious assault in our state. During its recent session, the General Assembly cut funding to all educational levels — K-12 an the community colleges. The university system took the hardest hit of all. Federal and private dollars are harder to come by in this grim economy as well.

Parents moan, often with justification, about all sorts of issues in K-12 schools — curricula, discipline, red tape and more, and they often vote with their feet by putting their children in independent schools or home schooling them. These choices affect public schools in many ways, including decreased funding, decreased diversity with the cultural enrichment it brings and less parental input and support. In some cases, there are also political attacks against public schools. I heard candidates in the last election cycle referring to public schools as “government schools,” insinuating that this is negative and not the glue of common experience that binds much of our nation.

In our community colleges, courses that lead to well-paid employment are being curtailed for lack of funding, and instructors endure among the lowest pay in our nation.

But here in the land of the first publicly supported university in the country, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill chartered by the legislature here in Fayetteville in 1789, the elected descendents of those enlightened people cut university system funding by almost 16 percent at a time when North Carolina’s population is exploding and higher education is more important than ever in our global economy. That first public university, by the way, took an 18 percent hit, the largest in the UNC system.

Tom Ross is the guy who has to deal with that this year for the foreseeable future.

He has clearly been thinking a great deal about our university system as evidenced by recent interviews and by his inaugural address last week.

First off, Ross refuses to whine.

He continues to focus on the university system’s charge to deliver quality higher education. N.C.’s Constitution states that this education shall be free, “as far as is practicable.” The problem is that no one knows what that means, and as the state pulls back funding, tuition increases loom large. Couple that with the reality of diminishing financial-aid for students, and the door of educational opportunity inches shut for families of low and modest means. Moreover, some political circles do not support any sort of student financial aid, a position that bodes ill for many who seek higher education.

University classes are already getting larger and fewer, meaning that some students will not graduate in four years because they could not get into all their required courses. In addition, there are calls to limit enrollment in the 17 constituent institutions of the UNC system at the same time nations challenging the United States in this global economy are ramping up their education systems.

North Carolinians who value education and who understand the profound difference it makes in the quality of life of both individuals and families are deeply concerned. Appalled may be a better word.

Study after study confirms that educated people make more money and lead more satisfying lives than those who are less educated. We can tell ourselves that being educated is an individual achievement and blessing, that one person’s education has nothing to do with the rest of us, but we would be wrong. It is in everyone’s best interest that North Carolina have an educated population prepared to keep our state and our nation competitive as the world continues to shrink.

Tom Ross put it this way in a recent interview with the Raleigh News and Observer, “If you look at most communities, most states, many, many of the leaders of those communities … and their institutions, are people who are college-educated. Our institutions are in the business, I think, of producing leaders for our society, and we’re in the business of helping people understand about a civil society, and how and why we come together in a society. So there’s a value to the common good.”

Thousands of North Carolinians have saved and planned for their own educations and for those of their children, secure in the belief that education will improve their lives and in the hope that their children’s lives will be better still.

This is the deepest heart of the American dream, and in North Carolina, it is in peril.

Photo: Tom Ross, president of the University of North Carolina 

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