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11 years after the Spellings Commission, ‘we need to do more’

UNC-Chapel Hill welcomes 160 state and national leaders in higher education to consider how far their field has come since the 2006 Spellings Commission Report on the future of higher education.

UNC-Chapel Hill welcomed about 160 state and national leaders in higher education on Sept. 26 for a symposium designed to consider how far their field has come since the 2006 release of the Spellings Commission Report on the future of higher education.

The report, written by 18 education, business and philanthropy leaders selected by then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, concluded that higher education must improve by becoming “more accessible, more affordable and more accountable, while maintaining world-class quality.”

“Eleven years after the Spellings Commission laid out where we were and what we needed to do, we’re going to re-evaluate and look to the future,” said Chancellor Carol L. Folt, who gave opening remarks to the attendees at the Higher Expectations, Higher Education symposium at the George Watts Hill Alumni Center on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. The event was sponsored by the University of North Carolina, UNC-Chapel Hill and the Institute of Arts and Humanities at UNC-Chapel Hill, with support from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust and the Higher Calling fund.

“We all feel great optimism about the future, but we all know we need to do more. The disparities are still too great,” Folt said. “And the startlingly low economic and social mobility we still see will require an acceleration of our efforts to prepare graduates for this knowledge economy.”

Spellings, now the UNC system president, echoed these sentiments in her keynote address at the symposium. After wryly observing that, in some ways, her current job of managing a 17-campus public university system is “payback for the so-called Spellings Commission,” she expressed support for the original report and its impact.

“I believe the commission put forward a fair, well-informed and ambitious set of goals that, frankly, are all too relevant and prescient today, for we haven’t made as much progress as I think many of us would have hoped,” Spellings said. “The opening line of the report called higher education one of our country’s greatest success stories, and it certainly is. There’s no denying that. But it needs continuous improvement to stay that way.”

A key priority should be “fixing our very fractured system of financial aid,” she said. “We’ve sold college as the golden ticket to middle-class opportunity, then priced average families out of the market.”

Much of the discussion in the “Where Are We Now?” panel, moderated by New York Times columnist and Carolina graduate Frank Bruni, focused on accountability. The Spellings Commission recommended “the creation of a consumer-friendly information database on higher education,” which sounds like the College Scorecard created in the Barack Obama administration.

But the scorecard wasn’t popular with the panelists. Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, said the scorecard was “a well-intentioned goal” but one that greatly distorted the achievements of historically black colleges and institutions. “They were really going after the for-profits,” Lomax said, “but they used a meat cleaver instead of a scalpel.”

Another panel, moderated by Folt, focused on the future in discovery, entrepreneurship and the economic value of higher education.

Economic value can be tough to measure in higher education because its products include intangibles like public service and citizenship. “We hope we imbue our faculty with that sense of public mission,” said University of Virginia President Terry Sullivan. “We see ourselves preparing students for lives of purpose and also preparing them to be engaged citizens.”

The University of Michigan combines its research mission with “place-based” service, said President Mark S. Schlissel, including automated cars for the Michigan automotive industry and water research on the Great Lakes. He’s seen a “culture shift” in faculty to value “societal utility and societal benefit” more highly.

Entrepreneurial researcher Joe DeSimone, the Chancellor’s Eminent Professor of Chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill’s College of Arts & Sciences and the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Chemical Engineering at NC State University, championed diversity in research and design teams and mentorship as ways to increase value. He also had a dig for his fellow panelists, whose universities are now celebrating their bicentennials, while Carolina is about to turn 224.

“It’s certainly great to be with some university startups here,” he said.