When the history of the university of the last few years is written, April 24, 2012 will be an important date. Whenever a sitting president of the United States visits a college campus, it is an important day in the university’s history. The visits of Jack Kennedy, Bill Clinton, James K. Polk and others are fondly remembered, highly documented occasions for Carolina. Special thanks to all the folks from University Events, Campus Police, Grounds, Student Affairs, Athletics, Carolina Performing Arts and University Relations who made it all possible.
A highlight for me was introducing faculty chair Jan Boxill and Employee Forum chair Jackie Overton to the President. I’ve had the opportunity to meet him twice before, but Jackie and Jan were meeting him for the first time. What a thrill for the two of them!
The visit of President Obama yesterday was exciting because he came here specifically to talk about higher education. During his talk, he mentioned college affordability, of course, but he also talked generally about support for public universities, basic research, curing cancer, and clean energy. These are topics that I talk about myself constantly, so personally, it was gratifying to hear a sitting president talking about these issues on our own campus.
I and my colleagues around the country have been saying that this is a pivotal moment in higher education. Just in the last week, I have served on panels moderated by Walter Isaacson (at the New York Ideas festival) and Gwen Ifill on these topics. People are asking questions like “is the business model of higher education broken?” I don’t think it is, but I do think we need to show decisively and urgently that higher education can adapt to the challenges before us. Having President Obama come to campus to talk about these things reinforces that urgency.
There isn’t a single answer to the challenges ahead of us. We need to address all of the big issues: The nature of undergraduate education and the delicate balance of providing students with job-related skills and a worldview that prepares them for citizenship in a changing world; The financial aid system and ensuring that everyone has a fair chance at a college education; The costs of higher education and making sure that we keep both the cost and price of college as low as possible; and The story of our research and its impact both in the near term on pressing problems facing the world and in the long term on providing a basis for education in the future.
We welcome the President’s comments about college costs. As he said in his talk, the average student who owes money in the US has a debt of $25,000, but at Carolina, only 35% of our students borrow money, and these students only owe an average of $15,000. We want to keep these numbers low; in fact, we’ve devoted the last 200 years to making sure we have this story to tell.
We’ll be writing and talking much more about these topics in the months ahead, and in the fall, we’ll have a series of conversations on the campus about the areas where Carolina needs to lead in addressing the challenges facing the nation.
As I said yesterday, there’s no better location for the President of the United States to talk about college affordability than the place that invented public higher education.
We are the light on the hill.