After storms, Peter Hans can bring calm and focus to the UNC system

For as long as I’ve known Peter Hans, he has talked about the importance of easy transfers between the state’s community colleges and universities. He meant for students, but Hans will make the leap himself next month when he steps down as head of the community college system and moves to the top job at the University of North Carolina. For his sake and the state’s, I hope it’s a smooth jump.

The nation’s oldest public university has endured more than its share of drama in recent years, driven largely by a small clique of Board of Governors members who brushed aside important-but-tedious policy reform to focus on dumb-but-exciting personal conflicts. Since Tom Ross was ousted as UNC System President in 2015, the dominant narrative has been about a “right-wing” takeover of university leadership, about Republicans finally getting their way with one of the state’s most important public institutions.

But the university’s struggle has been less about ideology than about temperament — a tug of war between board members trying to serve the institution and those intent on borrowing it as a stage. Margaret Spellings, protested as a Bush-era boogeyman when she succeeded Ross, delivered a nonpartisan agenda of controlling tuition, improving graduation rates, and enrolling more low-income students. That workaday progress was overshadowed by bathroom legislation, Confederate monument mismanagement, and board meetings conducted with all the grace and maturity of a middle school dance.

In the background much of that time, advising on issues like online education and enrollment growth, was Peter Hans. He was an early supporter of Spellings’ strategic plan, and he has carried the torch for sensible reform as vice chair of the MyFutureNC initiative, which aims to… control costs, improve graduation rates, and enroll more North Carolina students in college.

All of those worthy goals will get tougher as we grapple with the recession that began in February. State budgets will tighten at the same time that newly unemployed North Carolinians head back to college. The challenge of serving those part-time, adult learners falls mostly on community colleges.

Meanwhile, public universities are struggling to maintain enrollment and keep students engaged amid disruptions from the coronavirus. Campuses had to make an abrupt transition to online this spring, and they’re now facing the prospect of a shortened and socially distanced fall semester. All of that puts retention and graduation at risk, especially for low-income and first-generation students.

Hans and his fellow higher-ed leaders will have their hands plenty full without the manufactured controversies that dogged Spellings and Ross. Current BOG Chair Randall Ramsay has lowered the temperature since he took over last fall, and some of the loudest culture warriors on the board have departed. Keeping focused on the core issues of university governance will matter more than ever this academic year, with campus protests and high-profile controversies pretty much guaranteed.

“We ask for your tolerance and your understanding when some particular individual is troubling you,” UNC President Bill Friday wrote to lawmakers in 1971, another season of campus unrest. “We ask that you sustain us in the knowledge that the broader goal and deeper mission we seek is that of providing your sons and daughters with the knowledge, skill and a sense of purpose with which to live in this troubled world.” Hans should crochet that into the boardroom carpet.

If leaders can stay focused, there’s a real opportunity to realign our higher education system to better serve a growing and diversifying state. North Carolina badly needs closer cooperation between community colleges and universities, starting with a unified approach to K12 outreach.

It’s crazy that we fund 58 community colleges and 16 universities, then make no consistent effort to alert high schoolers to their existence. We have a state financial aid program that spends millions while providing no incentive for high school performance or college enrollment. Most of our graduating seniors would qualify for federal financial aid, but we have no FAFSA completion requirement. The low-hanging fruit for an energetic, trusted UNC president is plentiful.

Let him get to it.

Community columnist Eric Johnson was a speechwriter for former UNC System President Margaret Spellings. He lives in Chapel Hill.

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