I’ve been listening and learning about Carolina for about five months now — meeting with faculty, staff and students, attending board, chair and departmental meetings, visiting alumni here in Chapel Hill and on the road, and taking part in the Tar Heel Bus Tour — and I’d like to share some of what I’ve observed.
What makes UNC-Chapel Hill special and enduring? In recent conversations, I’ve often referred to it as having, like good Carolina barbecue, a “secret sauce.” (I’ve learned enough about Carolina to stay away from debating which is superior — eastern or western Carolina barbecue.)
I can see at least four ingredients in the secret sauce. I’ll talk about two of those today.
Ingredient No. 1: There is an abiding loyalty and love for the university by its alumni, faculty, staff and students. I’ve visited a lot of universities in my time and haven’t seen anything like it. It’s not just about having a postcard-pretty campus.
This deep affection is driven in part by the extraordinary education we provide, the cutting-edge creative works and research we produce and the well-rounded student experience we offer. But we cannot assume that love from Carolina alumni, faculty, staff and students will always be a given; we need to love our people back. We need to take the time to ensure that all our Tar Heel family feel acknowledged and valued. The actions needed to do that take many forms that we will talk about over the coming year, including providing quality working facilities, fair compensation and more opportunities for alumni to remain engaged with their alma mater. We want this ingredient to remain potent, and we need to take the actions necessary to ensure that.
Ingredient No. 2: There is strong state support for higher education in North Carolina. The state is ranked 12th in the nation in the amount of educational appropriations per student in higher education. At the same time, it has the ninth-lowest overall cost for in-state students (part of why it has been ranked the No. 1 “best value” public university for 18 consecutive years by U.S. News & World Report). This ingredient makes in-state tuition affordable, the pioneering Carolina Covenant possible, our focus on North Carolina students front and center, and our university truly the people’s university.
We must carefully and jealously guard this gift. While still strong, per-student college spending in North Carolina has declined slightly over the past decade relative to the national average when adjusted for inflation. We can also observe that state spending at many of our fellow public AAU partners has slipped to very low levels, forcing them to seek up to half of their students from other states and to charge them higher, out-of-state tuition. This has strained college affordability and risks the wealth gap also becoming a higher education gap.
We cannot passively allow our support to slip as well. Our DNA must remain Carolina blue and we must remain the university of the people.
Part of what makes our classroom and co-curricular experiences so successful is the student diversity that we bring to campus because we serve such a diverse state and a diverse country. Keeping tuition affordable is essential to that success. Earlier this month, the Board of Trustees approved a proposal to the Board of Governors to hold tuition for in-state undergraduates steady for a seventh straight year in 2023-24. We should be quick to acknowledge those who ensure the success of this ingredient but remain vigilant that it stays a potent part of the secret sauce.
Secret sauces may seem mysteriously complex, but they are often not. Sometimes it’s just a matter of some essential ingredients blended well. I’ll be back with a couple of more ingredients soon, but in the meanwhile, I invite you to share with me what you see as the essential ingredients to cooking up Carolina’s secret sauce.
James W.C. White
Craver Family Dean
College of Arts and Sciences