Academia’s Mission Creep

, George C. Leef, Leave a comment

On September 29, University of North Carolina (UNC)-Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser delivered his “State of the University Address.” Throughout his speech, Chancellor Moeser talked repeatedly about the importance of the university showing leadership. Leadership would indeed be a splendid thing if it were in the areas central to the university’s educational mission.

Unfortunately, the leadership that Chancellor Moeser wanted to discuss had little to do with the teaching of students. Only briefly did he mention the “culture of learning” at Chapel Hill, which he’d like to improve by increasing the percentage of classes with fewer than 20 students and by paying teaching assistants more money.

Neither of those changes would do very much. Learning in college depends far more on the motivation of the student than on the number of classmates. Paying teaching assistants more won’t necessarily make them any better at helping undergraduates learn. Having professors teach more and relying less on teaching assistants would help improve the culture of learning, but that’s not what UNC is doing.

No, the leadership Chancellor Moeser has in mind is of a different sort – a variety of programs in initiatives that are supposed to benefit the state as a whole. For example, Moeser wants the university to lead by creating jobs and expanding the state’s tax base. Toward that end, UNC has created an Office of Economic and Business Development (OEBD).

The OEBD is supposed to improve the ability of entrepreneurs and business managers to invest and expand in the state by “matching faculty and campus resources with statewide needs.”

Sounds nice, but chambers of commerce around North Carolina are already quite adept at providing businesses with assistance, and to the extent that UNC might have faculty members or information that could be valuable, people in business already have both the means and motive to search for what they need. How much business growth will occur because of the OEBD that otherwise wouldn’t have happened? My guess is extremely little.

The key question is not how much OEBD will accomplish or how much it will cost, but rather why it should be part of the mission of a university, even a state “flagship” university, to concern itself with business growth. Of course, business growth is important, but it isn’t the university’s task to maximize it.

What we have at UNC (and also at many other big universities) is a case of mission creep. That is, taking on functions that are outside your responsibility. Businesses that behave that way, diversifying into many different markets outside of the one where they’re very good, often wind up being mediocre to poor in everything. A university that succumbs to the temptation to expand into areas other than education is apt to have the same result.

Instead of trying to expand the state’s economy or deal with other problems that are outside of its core mission, I would like to see UNC take leadership in something that is at the absolute heart of its reason for existence – ensuring that students make significant gains in the skills and knowledge they will need when they enter the world of work.

Wait a minute – if students are able to earn enough credits to graduate, doesn’t that pretty well show that they have learned a lot? Not necessarily. An increasingly common complaint among professionals and business managers is that many college graduates they hire are weak in some crucial respects.

The most important of those is writing. If you can’t write clearly, you’re going to encounter difficulty in a wide array of jobs. But as a recent report by the National Commission on Writing found, there is considerable dissatisfaction in the business community with the writing ability of college graduates.

Here’s a typical comment. “Recent graduates aren’t even aware when things are wrong (singular/plural agreement, run-on sentences, and the like). I’m amazed they got through college.”

The problem is that at many colleges, students are infrequently given written assignments, and when they are, the work is not rigorously critiqued and graded. Consequently, many students enter with poor writing skills and graduate without having made much improvement.

Since just earning a BA now longer signifies much by itself, I think it’s time for UNC to lead by coming up with a way of demonstrating academic value gained by students. What I have in mind is an exam to assess student abilities in such universally important areas as language skills, reasoning, and mathematics, given to incoming freshmen and graduating seniors. That would give us a before and after picture of student capabilities.

Doing well on the exam would be an added competitive advantage for UNC students – provided that the exam was written and administered in a fashion that inspired confidence in it. A strong set of scores would say to potential employers, “This student will be a good asset and you won’t need to spend additional money on training.”

Furthermore, with the inducement of getting a stronger graduation score, students would probably tend to take courses that they think would augment their writing and thinking abilities, rather than, as some students admit to doing, just looking for courses that are relatively easy and fun. Useful learning would become more highly valued and fluff courses would become less attractive to students.

If UNC were to take this step, it would most likely spread quickly to other universities. Graduates with solid proof of their intellectual capabilities would have an advantage over students with nothing more than a bachelor’s degree. Wanting to provide their students with similar evidence of readiness for employment, other schools would follow UNC’s lead.

This exam would also be of great use within UNC. Suppose that the first few years of the exam showed that many students were not progressing much in the areas covered. That ought to provoke a reaction, such as a directive from the Chancellor to the deans telling them that they should do more to improve student writing, or wherever the weaknesses were most notable.

The exam would also make it possible for the administration and students to see which programs within the university tended to promote the strongest gains and which ones were weak. Knowing that could influence students in their choice of major.

UNC (and other colleges and universities) have been acting as like businesses operating without any quality control procedures. Their “outputs” – graduates – get a stamp of approval just because they’ve made it through the system. That was adequate fifty years ago when getting into college was hard and staying in required considerable perseverance, but at a time when higher education has become a mass consumer product, we need to institute some means of educational quality assurance.

In his book How to Succeed in School Without really Learning, Professor David Labaree writes that college degrees have become merely a credential to many students. “The payoff for a particular credential is the same no matter how it was acquired, so it is rational behavior to try to strike a good bargain, to work at gaining a diploma, like a car, at a substantial discount.”

If UNC could defeat the credential mania, that would be leadership I’d applaud.

George Leef ( is the executive director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh. For more information on the Pope Center visit our Web site at