Erskine Bowles ’67 celebrated his first University Day as president of the UNC System by iterating his love for the Chapel Hill campus and outlining a plan to make Carolina the best public university in the nation.
Serving as the president of the UNC System “is by far – nothing else comes even close – it’s by far the single greatest honor I can imagine ever being given,” he told a crowd of faculty, staff and students in Memorial Hall on Thursday.
Bowles, who is the fourth president of the consolidated 16-campus system, delivered the keynote address during UNC’s 2006 University Day celebration. The annual event commemorates the laying of the cornerstone of Old East – the University’s first building – in 1793.
In between jabs at UNC’s peer institutions, including a comment that “Carolina stands up for all the people in the state – except, of course, the Dookies,” Bowles offered six tasks the University must undertake in order to be “unquestionably again the best public university in America.”
“I don’t want to hear excuses about why Berkeley or Michigan or, for God’s sakes, Virginia are ranked better than us,” he said to laughter from the crowd.
The first task, Bowles said, is for the University to remain accessible to North Carolinians of all income levels. The second is to invest in faculty. Bowles praised the University’s Carolina Covenant program and Carolina First capital campaign, which provide debt-free aid packages for low-income students and endowed professorships for faculty, respectively.
He also pointed to a proposal expected to be approved by the UNC System Board of Governors that would limit campus-initiated tuition and fee increases for the next four years. The same proposal also would require 25 percent of new tuition revenues systemwide to be set aside for need-based financial aid. Another 25 percent would supplement faculty salaries until wages for all faculty members reach the 80th percentile of UNC’s peer universities.
“There is nothing else I believe more strongly than this: Our faculty are our greatest asset – you are our reputation,” Bowles said to the faculty members in academic regalia seated directly in front of the stage.
The third step is to boost scholarship packages to attract top graduate students – a task Bowles said is “no different than trying to recruit the very best basketball players in the world to North Carolina.”
Fourth, Bowles said, the University must invest in research, and he pledged his full support to developing the Carolina North research campus. He said the United States as a whole needs to remain on the cutting edge of the global economy – a challenge he likened to the country’s quest to maintain technological superiority in response to Sputnik.
“Because, believe you me, the economic threat we face today in this knowledge-based, global economy is just as great, if not greater, than that we faced in the 1950s.”
Bowles’ fifth task for the University is to maintain a focus on the liberal arts so that graduates have the problem-solving, creative-thinking and communication skills they need to succeed. “If we fail here, then everything else we do is for naught,” he said.
Finally, Bowles said the University must raise its standards of excellence and hold itself accountable for meeting them. He pointed to higher graduation and retention rates as examples.
Bowles closed his remarks with a promise that when the six tasks have been accomplished, UNC will be the top public university in the country, “not just in public health, not just in basketball, but as a university.”
“And our graduates – our graduates will be able to compete and compete successfully with the world’s best and brightest, wherever they may be.”
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