This past Friday, two of my colleagues and I were granted the privilege of interviewing UNCG’s new chancellor, Dr. Frank Gilliam.
And, I must say, I was very impressed by him. I found Chancellor-Elect Gilliam to be insightful, kind and a good listener; of course, those skills should come as no surprise given the rigorous chancellor selection process administered by the UNC Board of Governors.
With that being said, my section of the interview was not focused on Gilliam’s personal feelings toward UNCG, or his long record of academic and administrative accomplishment. Instead, I chose to hone in on the area that matters to just about every student on campus: cost of attendance.
As this newspaper has previously reported, tuition increased this academic year by five percent— the maximum allowed by the UNC Board of Governors. Fees also increased by roughly four percent.
Obviously, this is disconcerting to all of us. Rising costs, whether it’s $300 in tuition or $20 in athletic fees, can put a strain on cash-strapped families that are already struggling to make timely payments to the university. And this doesn’t even take into account the adult or independent students that are already footing the bill themselves.
When I pressed Gilliam on this very issue, he responded with a simple answer: “My number one priority is raising money for scholarships and fellowships.” In fact, he claimed that this method was the most successful way “to combat student debt.”
At first, I felt like this was a cop-out. After all, due to my hard-edged conservatism, I tend to lean on budget cuts and efficiency measures in order to drive down costs. In fact, I would be perfectly fine with significant faculty and staff cuts if it meant lowering the cost burden placed on struggling students and families.
Certainly, my views are in the minority in both the academic community and student body. Yet, too often opponents of my austerity measures offer no real solution to the, frankly, unpatriotic cost of higher education.
Gilliam, however, gave me a reason to be optimistic about his approach to revamping the scholarship fundraising efforts conducted by UNCG administrators. His selling point, of course, was his personal experience on the matter.
He, quite concisely, explained that higher education is becoming a “zero-sum game where any reallocation of anything is at the expense of something else.”
Also, he made it clear that “we couldn’t save enough money, by cutting, to reduce [student] fees.”
Then, Gilliam proceeded to mention the fact that he has extensive experience in raising funds for scholarships from his time as Dean of the Luskin School of Public Policy at UCLA.
Of course, that was UCLA and this is UNCG. To say that the fundraising networks are different would be like saying Bernie Sanders has bad hair—it’s a dramatic understatement. I mean, seriously, Frankenstein has better hair than Bernie.
Despite this drastic difference, I’m still optimistic that Gilliam and other administrators can tap into UNCG’s large alumni-base and steadily build a robust donor network. In fact, he commented that this base should be fairly easy to tap into because “about 60 percent of the alums are within a 50-mile radius” of the campus.
So, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a fairly substantial increase in scholarships for both current and prospective UNCG students; especially when alums, which many of us are bound to become, realize that the prestige of UNCG impacts the value of our degree.
With that being said, it is impossible to deny that there are fundamental problems with higher education. In my mind, the main driver of both rising costs and delayed graduation dates is the general education curriculum.
As most students know, introductory-level courses can be massive wastes of time and money. For starters, some course sections can be filled to capacity, while others barely fill half of the available seats. And on top of that, students are required to buy expensive textbooks that are sometimes never even opened.
To make matters worse, if a student chooses to change majors, say from a liberal arts degree to the business degree, then he or she will be told that their previous general education path was meaningless and a new path, with new courses, will be necessary.
When I described this situation to Gilliam, he seemed to understand the overall point and its impact on numerous students.
He first pointed out that Provost Dana Dunn, the acting chancellor, has been working on this issue since she first began at UNCG roughly a year ago, and is driven to find a workable solution. However, he made sure to clarify that our 33.2 percent, 4-year graduation rate is unacceptable and cannot continue—which all of us can wholeheartedly agree with.
In addition to this point, he spoke of the inherent difficulty in cutting course sections based on popularity, because the demand for a particular course is “hard to predict” and “changes from semester to semester.”
Yet, Gilliam did point out one cost-saving measure that epitomized the innovative mindset he wishes to bring to UNCG: more 4 +1 programs. These programs, of course, involve a specialized curriculum that allows students to graduate with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in five years.
These programs, if implemented, could help our campus in a variety of ways. For instance, by placing students on a more specific path we will be able to minimize the indecision that often accompanies the first two years of college.
Furthermore, the idea of graduating students with a master’s education in five years will make our students more desirable in the job market. It’s definitely a win-win situation, and I’m hopeful that Gilliam will be able to act upon this particular ambition.
But aside from these ideas and dreams, I found Gilliam to be a man with an ability to communicate with the student body on a personal level, which has been sorely missed over the last seven years.
If Gilliam is able to act on his capability in this area of life, then I am sure he’ll be a success. Then again, only time will tell.