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Some faculty at Western North Carolina’s universities are wary of the University of North Carolina’s new efficiency-minded strategic plan, one they fear will take the direction of curricula out of their hands.

The “Our Time, Our Future: The UNC Compact with North Carolina” plan, approved by the UNC Board of Governors on Feb. 8, sets the UNC system’s goals for the next five years. Developed by business, education, government and student leaders, as well as selected UNC chancellors, faculty, staff and board of governors members, the plan stresses money-saving efficiencies in both university operations and curricula and seeks to align university offerings with market demands.

Gov. Pat McCrory recommended partial funding of the plan’s priorities in the $20.6 billion budget he presented to the General Assembly in March. The governor’s proposed budget eliminates $139 million from UNC’s budget for the coming fiscal year, a reduction that comes on top of more than $400 million in permanent cuts the UNC system absorbed two years ago.

Faculty throughout the state are skeptical that the plan’s goals can be met in light of the budget cuts. They are also concerned about its proposals regarding curricula direction, competency testing and e-learning.

“If enrollment goes up, the campuses will have to accommodate more students, but we don’t have any capital funding for new classrooms,” said Andy Koch, chairman of the Appalachian State University Faculty Senate and associate professor of political science. “Reaching those goals just looks very ambitious given the kinds of (financial) support that the university is receiving. At some point, it’s difficult to see how additional cuts won’t cut into the academic mission of the institution.”

The UNC system has been watching Raleigh closely since March, when state Sen. Pete Brunstettler, R-Forsyth, co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers might close a campus or two to save money. But McCrory, addressing the UNC Board of Governors April 11 at UNC Pembroke, said the legislature is not planning to close any UNC campuses.

Long-range planning is one of the responsibilities of the UNC Board of Governors, which periodically revises and updates the UNC system’s five-year strategic plan. Its latest update is a 121-page plan that guides the system’s actions and priorities through 2018, replacing the “UNC Tomorrow” strategic plan that was adopted in 2006. The new plan seeks to serve the needs of a state population expected to grow from nearly 10 million to nearly 12 million by 2030.

Among the plan’s goals is increasing the percentage of state residents with at least a bachelor’s degree from 26 to 32 percent. The plan calls for the system’s help in making North Carolina among the 10 most-educated states by 2025, with 37 percent of residents attaining a bachelor’s degree or higher.

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The UNC Faculty Assembly, composed of members of each university’s faculty senate, applauded these goals, as it does other goals in the plan. But in a letter sent to UNC President Tom Ross, it expresses concern over many of the plan’s proposals and actions steps. Concerns it mentions – shared curricula, standardized testing, education funding and control over curricula, among them – have been seconded in letters that the ASU, WCU and UNCA faculty senates have sent to Ross.

Calls for curricula changes raise faculty concerns

In hopes of making credits more easily transferred among UNC universities, the plan in its “maximizing efficiencies” section calls upon the UNC system to “develop system-wide guidelines for instructional productivity, (to) better align general education requirements, consider consolidation of certain overlapping programs and make better use of online instruction.”

Fears that the goal will lead to standardized general education classes prompted the UNC Faculty Assembly, in its Jan. 19 letter to UNC President Tom Ross, to state that “faculty have primary responsibility for design, delivery and assessment of the curriculum.”

The system risks losing its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools “if this faculty oversight is lacking,” the assembly stated in its letter.

“Each of the institutions has its own, unique identity, and we don’t want to lose that,” Mary Jean Ronan Herzog, an education professor and the chairwoman of the Western Carolina University Faculty Senate, said in a recent telephone interview. Herzog, who is also a member of the UNC Faculty Assembly, has heard from faculty members across the state who are concerned that a one-size-fits-all curricula would dilute each institution’s educational mission and imperil its accreditation.

In a Feb. 22 letter to Ross, the UNC Asheville Faculty Senate said that a “standardized core curriculum” would have a detrimental effect on UNCA’s liberal arts mission. “Our curriculum is tailored to the classical tenets of the liberal arts, and we believe it will not be possible to align our mission with the curriculum designed to serve the system as a whole,” the letter stated.

In his Feb. 26 letter of response, Ross told UNCA’s Faculty Senate that “in no way does the plan envision or intend a standardized curriculum.” The plan “recognizes that faculty, departments and institutions construct and deliver courses and curricula consistent with their own unique mission to students who learn in a variety of ways.” He said faculty at each institution would be primarily responsible for curricula.

Ross’s letter “certainly sounds very good,” said Melissa Burchard, UNCA Faculty Senate chair and an associate professor of philosophy.

“President Ross has said all along that he is firmly behind us. He understands the liberal arts mission and what we are as a campus,” she said. “And he’s right – the plan doesn’t say in so many words that we should create a standardize curricula. But some of the moves required by the plan look like that’s the direction that we’re moving in.”

Said Koch: “If you read the UNC (Board of Governors) code and take it seriously, curricula is a faculty matter that historically has been dealt with by the individual campuses. The faculty are in the best position to understand the educational needs of the students.”

Questions about testing and e-learning

In its Jan. 19 letter to Ross, the UNC Faculty Assembly expresses concern about the plan’s recommendation for a “robust competency-based general education learning outcomes assessment strategy.” Standardized college testing to gauge student learning has been proved ineffective, the assembly contends. And it fails for another reason, Koch said.

“Overall, the (ASU) faculty don’t like standardized testing because the substance of the courses we teach is too specialized to be captured in standardized testing, unless you make the standardized testing so general that it doesn’t measure specific learning outcomes,” he said.

The plan calls for wider use of distance learning to help the UNC system reduce course and capital redundancies. Herzog, like the UNC Faculty Assembly, is troubled by some aspects of e-learning, which could take the shape of one professor teaching an introductory-level course to freshman across the state.

“We’re going to have to see where that goes,” Herzog said. “What I’ve heard faculty say in lots of emails and in meetings with the faculty assembly across the state (is that) they’re concerned about distance education taking over. But we have to recognize that distance education is here. It’s a cost-effective approach.”

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Among the concerns about e-learning, Herzog said, is that being proficient in the classroom doesn’t mean an instructor would be proficient teaching in a distance-learning setting. Security is also an issue, she said – how would an instructor know that the person taking the class was the one doing the work?

Research indicates that fewer students finish online courses than finish in-class courses, Burchard said. “People think of (online classes) as convenient to start with, but it doesn’t seem to work well,” she said.

“One of the joys and satisfactions of teaching is the relationships between and among students and faculty,” Herzog said in a recent email. “Teaching is a relational enterprise. The relationships developed online are quite different. … There’s a level of abstraction that de-personalizes teaching.”

Work underway to decide implementation

UNC spokeswoman Joni Worthington said in a recent email that Ross recently created three committees, composed of chancellors, campus administrators and faculty, to recommend how the plan should be implemented. The General Education Council is reviewing existing core classes to assess what they should have taught students at each institution and which testing instruments best measure what students have learned. The committee will make its report by January 2014.

The eLearning Workgroup will develop and recommend a system-wide process to make sure faculty have the skills to teach online. The Section Size Efficiencies Workgroup is studying, and may recommend modifications to, class sizes in undergraduate and graduate courses in certain majors, Worthington said.

The Board of Governors has appointed a committee to monitor progress in plan implementation.

“The board has acknowledged that the plan must be considered a living document that is subject to appropriate modification and fine-tuning over time,” Worthington stated in her email.

Correction: A previous version of this story reported that WCU’s Faculty Senate did not issue a formal response to the plan. It has. The error has been corrected.

Paul Clark

Paul Clark is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at paulgclark@charter.net.

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