Under Margaret Spellings, will UNC’s liberal arts programs become a thing of the past? | Triangulator | Indy Week
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Under Margaret Spellings, will UNC’s liberal arts programs become a thing of the past? 

It's been a rough couple of weeks for UNC's Board of Governors. Animosity over the botched, politically motivated firing of beloved president Tom Ross earlier this year still lingers, and the recently concluded selection process for his successor, followed by behind-closed-doors raises for 12 chancellors, can charitably be called tumultuous. (Clusterfuck might be the technical term.)

Margaret Spellings, the Bush administration secretary of education who once demanded that PBS return federal funding because a kids program featured gay characters—"I'm not going to comment on those lifestyles," she said at an Oct. 23 press conference—will take the reins next year. For the most part, students, faculty and alumni don't seem thrilled. It's not just Spellings' position on gay rights; it's also her lack of higher-education experience and her board membership on the parent company of the for-profit University of Phoenix.

Claire Jarvis has many of the same concerns. Jarvis, now an English professor at Stanford University, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1998. On Oct. 23, the day Spellings' hire was announced, Jarvis fired off an email to Champ Mitchell, a member of the Board of Governors.

As "a strong believer in the power of a broad based liberal arts educations," she wrote, "I am dismayed, to say the least, to hear of Margaret Spellings proposed appointment to become the President of the UNC System. ... By turning UNC degrees into glorified jobs training programs, you limit the ways a robust, intellectually engaged education generates workers with a variety of skills, the kinds of workers who are trained for the jobs of tomorrow simply because their training is not commensurate with the job they have today."

"I realize the left considers us all conservative troglodytes incapable of rational thought," Mitchell responded, pointing out that he, too, benefited from a liberal arts education and was previously a Democrat. (He did not respond to the INDY's requests for comment.) In a survey the board conducted before the search began, he continued, every group except one, the faculty, said the new president needed the ability to manage transformational change. "I am constantly amazed that a group that will lecture the world on its need to change in myriad ways is the most change adverse, hide bound group I have ever seen when the need for change is suggested in the world they so comfortably populate. Your commentary indicates you are well suited for your faculty position."

Jarvis was taken aback by Mitchell's condescension. She posted the exchange on her Twitter feed. "If that's the way the Board of Governors feels about their faculty," she told the INDY last week, "they're missing out on what we do every day."

Two things unsettle her: First, as an academic who focuses on sexuality in literature, she worries that things like women's studies and queer studies and African-American studies—anything perceived as "liberal"—will be pushed aside, and the safe spaces UNC currently creates for LGBTQ students will deteriorate. Two, she is concerned that knowledge for knowledge's sake may soon become a bygone concept in North Carolina.

"I do think a robust liberal arts education produces better citizens and better workers," she says. "I think it's fine for people to major in medieval history and never do medieval history again."

"Time will tell who was right," Mitchell concluded his letter to Jarvis. "However, regardless of that result, the University has survived civil war and depression and I expect it will survive Ms. Spellings quite well."

UPDATE: We received the following response from Champ Mitchell after we went to press.

Jeffrey C. Billman (INDY): I saw that your email exchange with a professor named Claire Jarvis has circulated some local social media feeds in the area. I was wondering if you would be willing to talk to me both about that and about what I think is her underlying question of whether liberal arts educations will be deprioritized in coming years within the UNC system.

Champ Mitchell: I don't follow social media so I have no idea what is being said. As to your question of whether "liberal arts educations will be deprioritized in coming years within the UNC system", the answer is "Not by the BOG or the UNC administration". Speaking solely for myself, I believe a broad based, academically rigorous background in all the major areas of learning is essential to produce a fully intellectually developed college graduate. I believe that background best serves the interest of a democratic society. As someone who has employed thousands and supervised hundreds, I believe such a background offers great long-term value to the career of the individual and to any entity that employs them.

It is true that many institutions of higher education have seen declining enrollment in majors that are not somehow related to STEM curricula. This does not mean that the institutions are deprioritizing or deemphasizing liberal arts. It is actually a result of change in demand on the part of the students, perhaps at the urging of parents or other advisors. Over the last few years there has been a continuing and increasing deluge of articles questioning the value of a college education generally (is a degree worth the cost and debt load). Even more, this torrent of media and research attention often questions the value of a general liberal arts education and a degree in a non-STEM related discipline to the value of a degree in a STEM related discipline. As recently as today, the Wall Street Journal carried an article entitled "Parents Fears Confirmed: Liberal Arts Students Make Less".

The article states that nearly half the students who enrolled at the nation's most selective liberal arts colleges had an income under $50,000 ten years after graduation. Given the burgeoning cost of college tuition and fees and the equally burgeoning average debt load of graduates who pay their own way, there is little wonder today's students are more concerned with potential income levels than their predecessors and thus are turning to the most potentially lucrative disciplines. So to the extent liberal arts are being deprioritized, it is the students who are doing the deprioritizing in response to economic realities and not the evil governing bodies or administration.

I understand that many in academia want to find someone else to blame for this change. In part the change reflects a changing world, a fact for which there is no blame. In part it reflects the more than doubling of tuition and fees over the last decade and the drastic increase in debt load it visits on students who actually have to pay for college. As one who has argued and voted against tuition increases and most fee increases, I am forced to note that those increases come almost exclusively at the requests of academic leadership.

While many states have done this in part in response to cuts in government funding, North Carolina is not one of these. This is contrary to the myth that has been created. The truth is based on a troubling detail some would willingly sweep aside: Facts. Some individual campuses have seen cuts in funding, but this has been more than offset by increases in funding for others. The University system as a whole, contrary to what is repeatedly claimed and indeed screamed, has actually seen an increase in funding from the state. The UNC General Administration staff prepared and presented to the BOG a five year history of funding from the 2009-2010 to the 2013-2014 academic years. It actually shows a small increase during that time period. It also shows that the oft repeated claim that the General Assembly gave UNC a more than $400 million cut in 2011 is a complete fabrication. I attach a copy of that document for your reference. Please see page 2 for a summary of the appropriations in total and by campus (without hospitals for obvious reasons) for those years. Moreover, the most recent session of the General Assembly increased the UNC budget by $99 million and proposed almost $1 billion in capital spending increases through the bond package.

Another often repeated complete untruth is that "cuts have been offset by increased enrollment which led to increased tuition receipts". Our University has not seen an increase in enrollment. In fact, it has seen a small decline in total enrollment with a small increase in full time equivalent enrollment. The real headline is enrollment has been essentially flat. Some campuses are up and others down, but the total student population has been essentially flat. The enrollment numbers during the same five year period as reported to us by the UNC General Administration were:
Fall Total Enrollment 2009 = 223,280 2010= 222,675 (2009 -2010 average = 222,978) 2014 = 222,913

Fall FTE Enrollment 2009 = 200,675 2010 = 202,095 (2009-2010 average = 201,385) 2014 = 203,392

These true facts are why North Carolina ranks between 3rd and 5th best in the nation in minimizing cuts to higher education. However, in the interest of some conception of "the greater good" many in academia and the media have decided to sacrifice truth to the desired story line, even when they have to fabricate it. It is up to you to decide whether you are one of those.

Reach the INDY's Triangulator team at triangulator@indyweek.com.

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