An Open Letter to the North Carolina State Legislature:
I hope you do not mind if I speak frankly. I have been teaching at NC State for more than thirty years now, and I have discovered that plain talk is usually best. Now before those of you who bleed Carolina Blue tune out, let me point out that my older daughter has a degree from Carolina Law and my younger has a double major BA from over there on the Hill. So I am that common critter here in the Old North State: A Tar-Packer. If you cut me open you would see one of those illustrations of the human circulatory system: twin pairs of vessels, one red and one blue. And while in this context I write purely as a private citizen, I believe I could raise some resounding “Amens!” on both campuses.
You are all smart people. You would not be a member of this august body were that not the case. It is currently in vogue to assume that all politicians are stupid; otherwise why would we be in this mess? Folks who allow themselves to espouse that position have never had to run for public office. Getting elected takes determination, smarts, and money. You have demonstrated that skill set. But somewhere along the path to what I assume are your excellent educational credentials, somebody in my job — standing up in front of the class — let you down. They neglected to teach y’all an important truth: There is no such thing as a free lunch. You get what you pay for.
You have chosen to pay for a second-rate education for your children. Well, maybe not for your children, they may be aiming at that darker shade of blue up in Durham or other private schools throughout the nation. But you are most certainly short-changing the 200,000 plus students who walk the 17 campuses of our four–year institutions and the almost 850,000 students who take classes in our community college system. And I, for one, do not see the wisdom in turning your back on almost a million people who will determine the future of the state.
I have heard the rhetoric about fiscal responsibility and the “mandate” to cut taxes which has led to the recent drastic cuts in funding to higher education, cuts which now rank us as next to the last in the nation in expenditures for education. The strange explanations stemming from the capitol as to why that is a good thing often quite impressively complex and sometimes entertaining. Still none of them trump a much more rustic expression: Don’t eat your seed corn.
Let me share a story about some of my students; the “seed corn” from which our future will grow. In one of my courses my students are required to define the career they wish to pursue after graduation. They must assess the skills necessary to get the job, and define how they will obtain those skills. Next, they actually apply for the job or internship that marks the next logical step on the path to that career. For the students who work seriously at the assignment, the assignment always gives them valuable insight into the real world of looking for a job; some actually land the job or internship. More interesting for the moment though, are the scattering of responses that I think of as “those with delusions of a job.” These, thankfully few, papers assert that within a few months of graduation the student will have started their own business or “taken over” an existing competitor and be well on their way to dominance in their chosen area. These papers, which usually skirt the actual requirements, are often late, poorly written, and lack citations. Yet they are heartfelt. These students truly believe that they will, without skills or experience, succeed in the global competition that will define their world.
These students will not suffer under the continual erosion in funding that you seem to feel is appropriate support for higher education in North Carolina. They are clueless, and will remain so even as the quality of their education crumbles around them. They will continue to believe, as you apparently believe as well, that the simple possession of a degree will suffice for success. The actual education represented by the degree is secondary. The “ticket” is all that is important. They, and you, seem to believe that there will come this magical moment when, despite second-rate skills and questionable dedication, they will rise above the competition. Sure, and do you want fries with that fantasy?
Unfortunately, it is the others, the seed corn; that you will be sacrificing. Our best students will soon discover that despite the efforts of their institutions to do more and more with less, and less, and less; they are simply more poorly trained than their competition. And remember, this is not the ACC tournament we are talking about. This is not UNC v. NC State; this is not about any of the rich rivalries among our 17 campuses or 58 community colleges. The issue here is how well the young people of North Carolina are being prepared to compete in a global economy.
China is planning to open 30 new graduate business colleges in the next few years. My students from India write English better than most of my native North Carolinian students. Those international students are now getting educational prime rib in their native lands, and you are asking us to make hoecakes with seed corn here at home.
Surely we taught you better than that.