Higher-education slipping, U.S. at risk, UNC chief says

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. —  America is shortchanging and devaluing public colleges and universities, putting the nation at risk in the global economy, the head of the University of North Carolina system says.

Americans increasingly see colleges and universities as “nothing more than factories that must demonstrate an immediate return on investment for consumers,” Tom Ross, president of the 17-campus UNC system, said in a speech to the National Public Affairs Forum of the City Club Raleigh.

But America is forgetting that the job of higher education is to prepare students to think on their own and work together, and to develop them as leaders and foster life-changing research, Ross said March 10 in the Forum’s inaugural lecture.

States are shifting costs to students and families, putting higher education out of reach for many or saddling them with debt, he said.

States also are cutting spending and losing faculty, along with their research dollars and the jobs they create, he said.

“I have come to the conclusion that America is losing her way with regard to higher education,” he said.

Eroding investment

America’s greatness is rooted in its higher education system, the best in the world, said Ross, who will step down next January after five years on the job, forced out in a move this past January by the UNC Board of Governors.

Yet enrollment is outpacing investment in higher education, which increasingly is focusing on “metrics, return on investment, and job preparation,” he said.

While America spends only two percent more on higher education in real dollars than it did 25 years ago, he said, enrollment has ballooned by over 60 percent, resulting in a 30 percent decline in spending per student.

“As a nation, we are disinvesting in higher education, and we are beginning to pay the price,” he said.

Bloomberg recently reported unemployment among college graduates had declined to 2.8 percent, he said, and it warned America was at risk of “not producing enough college graduates to meet its workforce needs.”

Falling behind

Other countries are making big investments in higher education, while the rankings of U.S. institutions decline and America’s “premier status as the place to be educated is fading,” Ross said.

What’s more, he said, the cost of higher education is rising beyond the means of many Americans.

“Growing numbers of American students can’t afford to attend college at all, and too many of those who do are burdened by significant debt,” he said. “This is a dangerous trend in my view.”

Wrong direction

In half the states, students at public universities pay more toward the cost of their education than the state does, down from only three states in which that was the case in 2000, Ross said.

“We are moving in the wrong direction,” he said. “America must educate more people if we are going to compete successfully in the global economy.”

The U.S. and North Carolina “must ensure that college remains affordable and accessibility to everyone who has the ability and desire to pursue it,” he said.

N.C. bucks trend

North Carolina, Ross said, has shown stronger support of its public universities than most other states.

In-state tuition rates for UNC campuses are in the lowest fourth among their public peer institutions in other states, with rates at many UNC campuses the lowest or next-to-lowest, he said.

As a result, he said, UNC students generally graduate with less debt than students in most other states.

Accessibility, efficiency

Keeping college affordable and accessible in the U.S. “will require renewed and sustained investment” in public systems of higher education, as well as greater operating efficiencies “without sacrificing the quality of education,” Ross said.

He said the UNC system is looking at ways to share services such as those to determine students’ residency and handle financial aid and audits. It also is looking at ways to conserve energy; streamline academics and operations; provide college e-purchasing; and make information-technology more efficient.

The UNC system, which employs 60,000 people — more than any private enterprise in the state — has eliminated hundreds of positions, and is producing 18 percent more graduates than it did five years ago while spending 15 percent less per degree, adjusting for inflation, Ross said.

“Very few businesses can boast that kind of increase in production along with that level of cost reduction,” he said.

Yet while the UNC system always can become more efficient, he said, an ongoing concern is that greater efficiency could “begin to erode the excellence” of educational opportunities campuses offer.

Spending cuts

In his four years as UNC system president, Ross said, he has managed continuing budget cuts, including $400 million in 2011, the largest cut in UNC’s history, and faces more cuts in the budget proposed this year by Gov. Pat McCrory.

With few exceptions, he said, UNC system faculty and staff have had only two salary increases, averaging about 1.5 percent, in the last six years.

“Without great faculty, you cannot be a great university,” he said.

And in their exodus to private industry and other institutions, he said, faculty often take federal research funds with them.

“This is a dangerous trend for North Carolina and one we must address,” he said.

Research dollars

While industry in the U.S. historically conducted its own research and development, Ross said, universities now account for roughly 75 percent of research in the U.S.

Public and private universities in North Carolina generate over $2 billion in research grants and contracts a year, including $1.2 billion at UNC campuses.

Those grants and contracts support over 22,000 jobs throughout the state and, over the past 10 years, have generated more than 135 spin-off companies, Ross said.

North Carolina State University alone has over 700 corporate partners, he said.

While research may be important to business, Ross said, it is even more important as a teaching tool.

“We must help people understand that today research is an integral part of teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate levels,” he said. “At its core, research is another form of hands-on learning.”

Economic impact

The UNC system enrolls 220,000 students from all 100 North Carolina counties, nearly all 50 states and numerous foreign countries, and operates with an annual budget just over $9 billion, including $2.3 billion from the state, making it the 11th-largest industry in North Carolina, Ross said.

A recent study found the UNC system creates $27.9 billion of added economic value for the state’s economy, he said, representing 6.4 percent of the state’s annual gross domestic product, or the equivalent of creating 426,000 new jobs.

Shortage of teachers

The UNC system has a responsibility to help prepare teachers for North Carolina’s schools, which face a “looming crisis” in the pool of teachers, Ross said.

Enrollment in UNC schools of education fell 12 percent last year and has plunged 27 percent over the past five years, he said.

At the same time, the state is losing veteran teachers “at an alarming rate,” he said.

“This is a recipe for disaster,” he said. “We must find effective ways to attract the best and brightest into teaching, and retain them once we invest in training them.”

Valuing higher education

The value of higher education “is not fully measured by one’s job title or earnings level,” Ross said. “Higher education has value beyond the individuals who participate in it that extends to the public at large.”

The U.S. must reverse its 25-year trend and “begin investing again in our public universities, in their faculties and students, in teaching and learning, and in research and discovery,” he said.

“I am convinced that if we increase educational attainment in North Carolina, we will have fewer people in poverty, there will be less demand for social services, fewer people will end up in our correctional system, more people will  have better health outcomes, and we will have stronger communities with more civically engaged residents,” he said. “Education is the great equalizer. It is the pathway to opportunity.”

Raising awareness

Efforts to educate policymakers about the “importance of education to the fabric of our society” must be aggressive, Ross said.

Higher education, both public and private, has driven the U.S. economy to become the strongest in the world, he said.

Higher education will prepare America’s business and community leaders, he said, to “produce the talent we need to win the economic competition we face globally,” and “preserve and protect our democracy.”

Lori O’Keefe to head Triangle Community Foundation

DURHAM, N.C. — Lori O’Keefe, vice president and chief operating officer for Triangle Community Foundation, has been named its president, effective Jan. 1, 2013.

A 20-year nonprofit veteran who joined the Foundation’s philanthropic services team in 2005, O’Keefe succeeds Phail Wynn Jr., who has served twice in the last year-and-a-half as interim president and CEO on a pro-bono basis.

“Lori is a consummate professional who has embraced our community, and is respected by donors and nonprofits,” Rick Guirlinger, chair of the Foundation’s board of directors, says in a statement. “Her abilities and experience make her well suited to guide the Foundation as we build on our strong legacy of philanthropic leadership to bring the community together in working to help fix our most urgent problems.”

O’Keefe says the Foundation has had a strong financial year and soon will launch an effort to bring together community leaders and organizations to identify critical needs and develop partnerships and resources to address them.

“The Triangle is blessed, but it also faces serious challenges,” O’Keefe says. “A top priority for the Foundation is to connect our donors, deploy our assets and address causes to help make our community a better place to live and work.  I am excited to lead the Foundation as we work to better serve our donors and make more strategic use of our resources to support nonprofits, which play an indispensable role in our region.”

A life-long devotee of the arts with a master’s degree in business administration specializing in arts and nonprofit administration, O’Keefe previously held positions in development and events management with the Carolina Ballet, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and New York University. She lives in Wake Forest with her husband and two young daughters.

“Lori is highly respected and deeply engaged in the Triangle area,” says Wynn, who is vice president for Durham and regional affairs at Duke University. “She has demonstrated an engaging and collaborative leadership style, which has proven effective in working with the community at large, the high-performing Foundation staff, and the Foundation’s donors and volunteer leaders.”

In May 2011, when he was serving as chair of the Foundation’s board, Wynn first was named interim president and CEO after the organization announced that Andrea Bazan was taking a sabbatical of indefinite length after six years as CEO.

Six weeks later, the Foundation announced she would not return.

In June, after a national search conducted by  Jorgenson Consulting in Greensboro, the Foundation named Mark Bensen, then executive vice president of MDC, a Durham-based national research group that focuses on economic and workforce development, as its new president and CEO, effective Aug. 13.

And in October, the Foundation announced Bensen had quit after two months on the job, and that Wynn would return as interim president and CEO.

Officials of the Foundation have declined to comment on the departures of Bazan and Bensen, saying it signed non-disclosure agreements with each of the two former CEOs.

Guirlinger, in a letter distributed October 5 to Foundation donors and friends, said the board and Bensen had recognized “early on” that they had “widely divergent visions for the Foundation, both in terms of strategy and implementation,” and that the board had “determined that it was in the best interests of the Foundation to accept Mark’s resignation.”

Wynn says O’Keefe was a finalist in the search that led to hiring Bensen.

“The board realized after he left that it did not need to do another search because we already had the leader we wanted,” he says.

Guirlinger says in a letter distributed this week to Foundation supporters that, in a “time of rapid change and great opportunity for our region,” and with the social sector facing many challenges, the Foundation “is well positioned to continue partnering with our donors to provide the resources to help nonproifts build their capacity to better serve people and places in need.”

Formed in 1983, the Foundation works with individuals and institutions to create and manage charitable funds that support a broad range of people and places in need, including specific causes its donors and funders care about.

It manages nearly $150 million in over 750 funds established by families, businesses, individuals and organizations, mainly for the benefit of Wake, Durham, Orange and Chatham counties. And it makes grants from those funds to nonprofits and administers a broad range of programs to benefit the community.

In the fiscal year ended June 30, the Foundation received over $16 million in gifts, and granted over $13 million to nonprofits, schools and community efforts.

Todd Cohen

Bensen to head Triangle Community Foundation

DURHAM, N.C. — Mark V. Bensen, executive vice president of MDC, a Durham-based national research group that focuses on economic and workforce development, has been named president and CEO of the Durham-based Triangle Community Foundation, effective August 13.

“Innovative philanthropy and effective stewardship of our region’s financial and social capital are essential to our growth and advancement,” and the foundation is “well-prepared to lead on all fronts,” Bensen says in a statement.

Bensen succeeds Phail Wynn Jr., vice president for Durham and regional affairs at Duke University, who has served as interim president and CEO since the abrupt departure nearly a year ago of Andrea Bazan.

Bensen has managed MDC’s daily operations, including its financial, human resources, and information-technology functions, and has played a key role in developing and implementing short and long-range strategic planning.

He formerly was executive director of the Lucy Daniels Foundation in Raleigh, and was director of the Global Education Initiative for the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also was associate director of the William R. Kenan Jr. Institute for Engineering, Technology & Science, and founding director of the Park Scholarships, both at North Carolina State University.

Wynn, the foundation’s former board chair, has served on a part-time basis, and Lori O’Keefe has served as vice president for philanthropic servcies and chief operating officer.

In mid-July 2011, six weeks after Bazan was given an immediate, “indefinite” paid sabbatical, the foundation announced she would not be returning.

The foundation manages $150 million in funds established by families, businesses, individuals, and organizations, makes grants from those funds to nonprofits, and administers a variety of programs to benefit the community.

It  manages over 750 funds that range in size from $10,000 to $10 million, mainly for the benefit of Wake, Durham, Orange and Chatham counties.

In fiscal 2011-12, the foundation granted over $14 million to nonprofits, schools and community efforts.