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Perspective | Four takeaways on the future of higher education

UNC Charlotte brought together two national leaders, Gov. Jeb Bush and Secretary Janet Napolitano, for this year’s 11th annual Chancellor’s Speaker Series, Tuesday, March 22. Susan DeVore ’81, chair of the UNC Charlotte’s Board of Trustees, moderated the bipartisan conversation. 

While Napolitano and Bush represent different political parties, they agreed on and emphasized the essential role public universities, like Charlotte, play in providing opportunities for students and success for communities. 

1. Access, affordability, and adaptability are critical to success for students and the institution.

Bush suggested higher education leaders need to ask two important questions: How do we best serve the community around us? How do we best serve an emerging and different group of students who have different needs than years past? He noted that a generation or two ago, most people could graduate with a four-year degree in four years, which isn’t the case today. “Now people have to work and they have different kinds of family structures, and the costs are significantly higher in real terms,” he said. 

Public institutions play a critical role in addressing this issue. Napolitano encouraged universities to embrace first-generation college students’ needs and to ensure a diverse student body that represents the diversity of the state. “Public universities should be open to students from all backgrounds,” she said. At UNC Charlotte, 35% of new undergraduate students are first-generation college students, and 36% of UNC Charlotte students come from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds. 

Napolitano also encouraged universities to take lessons learned from the pandemic as a way of expanding access to higher education. Incorporating remote learning technologies into academic programs may serve as an effective mechanism for nontraditionally aged students who need access to higher education but are not able to live on campus. 

2. Investing in university research is an investment in the community.

Both leaders stressed the importance of universities growing their research initiatives to address community challenges and acknowledged the continued need for the federal government and state legislatures to invest in research on university campuses. 

“To my mind, our role is to do the basic research. And then to work on the application, the applied application of that research,” said Napolitano. She encouraged universities to push the boundaries of possibilities and to “focus on their research journey and consider where they can add the greatest value.” She further urged universities not to be “limited only by our imaginations” and to take research beyond the application phase to the ethical considerations associated with the implementation of new technologies. “Universities can help us think through some of the ethical issues associated with these new technologies because there are many.”

Bush encouraged universities to ensure their research efforts support the specific needs of their communities. “Universities need to be mindful of their communities and should be focused on research that their constituencies can benefit from, because that’s how you create a sustainable university,” he said. 

During the pandemic, UNC Charlotte became among the first institutions in the nation to stand up a wastewater research program. The North Carolina General Assembly awarded $9 million to the university — the largest state appropriation for research in the institution’s history — to support this and other COVID-19 research and testing.

3. STEM is critical, but so are the humanities.

When asked if the humanities still have a place in higher education, both Bush and Napolitano said “yes,” explaining the need for well-rounded workers in today’s business environment.

“Teaching STEM is important, but a university should be universal in what it teaches,’ said Bush. “I think businesses today and certainly going forward in the future are going to want people that have a liberal arts degree because they can think, they can write.”

According to Napolitano, the humanities help students appreciate the world and learn how to think differently. “Even those who are majoring in the STEM fields need exposure to literature, philosophy, and history,” she said. 

Along those lines, UNC Charlotte’s newly revised general education curriculum (“The Charlotte Model”) will ensure undergraduate student attainment of four core competencies of communication, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and intercultural understanding. In 2021, STEM majors represented 30% of UNC Charlotte’s incoming freshmen class.

4. Public universities are part of the ‘secret sauce’ for the economy.

Public universities play a pivotal and unique role in addressing the needs of their communities, states, and the nation as a whole. 

According to Napolitano, that makes them part of the “secret sauce” of what makes the American economy special. “Public universities, in my view, are special institutions in our system, and we need to do such a better job in communicating about them and building public support for them. You know, when you buy a car, it depreciates in value. The moment you drive it off a lot. When you have a college degree, it appreciates in value over the course of a lifetime.”

Additionally, Bush sees a lot of opportunities for governors to work with their universities, community colleges, and technical schools to create statewide strategies to connect the aspirations of people that don’t have skills with the jobs that exist. “Whether it’s nurses, information technologists, computer scientists, this is a huge opportunity to maybe accelerate the modernization of the workforce, and universities can play a really constructive role,” he said. 

Gov. Jeb Bush

Florida established a bold accountability system for public schools and created the most ambitious school choice program in the United States, during his two terms as governor from 1999 through 2007.

Bush currently serves as chairman of Dock Square Capital LLC, a merchant bank headquartered in Miami. He joined the University of Pennsylvania as a non-resident Presidential Professor of Practice for the 2018-19 academic year and previously served as a visiting professor and fellow at Harvard University, an executive professor at Texas A&M University and has been awarded several honorary doctorates. He maintains his passion for improving the quality of education for students across the country, serving as chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a national nonprofit education reform organization he founded to transform education in America.

Secretary Napolitano

A distinguished public servant, Napolitano served as the president of the University of California (UC) from 2013-20, as U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security from 2009-13, as governor of Arizona from 2003-09, as attorney general of Arizona from 1998 to 2003 and as U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona from 1993-97.

As UC president, she was a steadfast advocate for California students, working to stabilize in-state tuition and to enroll historic numbers of California undergraduates. In 2017, under Napolitano’s leadership, the University of California was the first in the country to file a lawsuit to stop the federal government’s rescission of the DACA program. She is the recipient of nine honorary degrees as well as the Jefferson Medal from the University of Virginia.

Jennifer Howe

Jennifer Howe is the director of advancement communications at UNC-Charlotte.