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Another Liberal Arts Critic

January 30, 2013

North Carolinians might have seen this coming when they elected Patrick McCrory governor in November. He's a Republican and the second half of his name is "Rick," and these days -- with Rick Scott in Florida and Rick Perry in Texas -- that tends to mean criticism of the liberal arts and flagship universities.

On a national radio program Tuesday morning, McCrory, who goes by Pat, said he would push legislation to base funding for the state’s public colleges and universities on post-graduate employment rather than enrollment.

"I'm looking at legislation right now – in fact, I just instructed my staff yesterday to go ahead and develop legislation – which would change the basic formula in how education money is given out to our universities and our community colleges,” McCrory told radio host Bill Bennett, who was education secretary under President Reagan. “It's not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs."

The Republican governor also called into question the value of publicly supporting liberal arts majors after the host made a joke about gender studies courses at UNC-Chapel Hill. "If you want to take gender studies that's fine, go to a private school and take it,” McCrory told the radio host. “But I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job."

The two criticized philosophy Ph.D.s in a similar manner later in the program. "How many Ph.D.s in philosophy do I need to subsidize?" Bennett asked, to which McCrory replied, "You and I agree." (Bennett earned a Ph.D., from a public flagship university, the University of Texas at Austin, in philosophy.)

McCrory’s comments on higher education echo statements made by a number of Republican governors – including those in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin – who have questioned the value of liberal arts instruction and humanities degrees at public colleges and universities. Those criticisms have started to coalesce into a potential Republican agenda on higher education, emphasizing reduced state funding, low tuition prices, vocational training, performance funding for faculty members, state funding tied to job placement in “high demand” fields and taking on flagship institutions.

The criticism by McCrory and others grows out of media reports of un- and underemployed college graduates (often anecdotal, but also based on some data), as well as a general strain of modern conservative political thought that asks whether states’ public sectors – including public colleges and universities – are inefficient, too large and costly, and are therefore getting in the way of private sector job growth.

"The shift is from seeing a robust public university as an economic and civic catalyst to wondering whether the university is so big that a lot of its inefficiencies need to be wrung out of it,” said Ferrel Guillory, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and expert on southern politics.

That belief tends to ignore the argument that a college education serves purposes other than preparing students for employment, including economic and civic returns that benefit individuals and society as a whole.

UNC System President Thomas Ross responded to the governor’s statements Tuesday by pointing out that the system is already moving away from funding by headcount, placing a greater emphasis on student success and academic and operational efficiency. "The university’s value to North Carolina should not be measured by jobs filled alone," Ross wrote in a statement. "Our three-part mission of teaching, research, and public service requires that we prepare students with the talent and abilities to succeed in the workforce, because talent will be the key to economic growth."

Ross answers to a governing board composed of members appointed by the state legislature, which has been controlled by Republicans since 2010.

Aligning university curriculums with business needs – one of McCrory’s main points – has been the focus of a strategic planning effort by the system’s Board of Governors and state business leaders that has been in place since before McCrory’s election in November. Drafts of that plan, however, have not advocated changing the way the university is funded.

Performance funding along the lines of what McCrory proposed is becoming a major policy discussion in many states. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities said earlier this month that performance funding, not budget cuts, was the top state policy issue for 2013.

McCrory’s criticisms of the education offered at places like UNC-Chapel Hill are somewhat unusual, given the broad public support the university system and in particular its flagship have held in North Carolina. State lawmakers have taken on Chapel Hill in the past – the university was targeted as a den of communist activity in the 1950s, and former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms’ remarks comparing the town to a zoo are common knowledge to N.C. residents. But McCrory follows a long line of both Republican and Democratic state governors, including Terry Sanford, Jim Martin and Jim Hunt, who have been supportive of higher education politically and financially.

“For the last quarter-century, the state, though legislative action and bond issue, has sought to position not just Chapel Hill, but the whole system as a strong asset in economic and civic development in the state,” Guillory said, noting that the UNC system has historically emphasized connections to business, economic development and public service to a greater degree than many other public research universities.

But faculty leaders, while not surprised by the governor's perspective (his platform emphasized greater vocational training), said they were taken aback by his attack on specific fields and the liberal arts in general.

“I wasn’t surprised,” said Joanne Hershfield, chair of UNC-Chapel Hill’s department of women’s and gender studies. “But it is kind of frightening. These kinds of attacks on women’s and gender studies are pretty prevalent.”

Hershfield said her department’s graduates do not have any problem finding employment upon graduation, with many going into public health, education, law, public policy, business and nonprofit work. She said one even had a yacht business.  “When he says all programs should be job-oriented, what kinds of jobs is he talking about?” Hershfield said.

McCrory himself is a graduate of a liberal arts college, Catawba College, where he studied education and political science. He said on the radio program Tuesday that he valued that kind of instruction, seeming to contradict his other statements.

Whether McCrory will be successful in advancing the funding change remains to be seen. The state, while dominated by Republican lawmakers, is somewhat split politically, voting for Barack Obama for president in 2008. Mitt Romney won the state in 2012, but only by about 92,000 votes in a state of 9.8 million.  “There remains strong public support for higher education,” Guillory said. “Mommas and daddies and their kids still strive to get into Chapel Hill and NC State.”

 

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