Forging a new mission
September 3, 2013By Jenny Callison
These are challenging times in which to lead a university. In midst of sometimes rather noisy nationwide and statewide discussions about higher education, Chancellor Gary Miller is trying to shape the future of the University of North Carolina Wilmington. It’s clear that change is inevitable, what with shrinking funding from the state, demands by legislators and parents for marketable educational outcomes for students, and the challenges that technology poses to the traditional classroom model.
The challenge, for the school’s leadership, is to define the school’s mission as well as the characteristics and programs that distinguish it, and determine how to best use its resources.
“At core, we must understand and communicate the university’s value proposition,” Miller said. “What is it that the university – especially the public university – must do?”
While Miller admits that recent waves of budget cuts to the UNC system have been a challenge, he’s optimistic.
“Historically, North Carolina has been a strong supporter of higher education, even in constrained times,” he said. “I expect it, going forward, to remain that way. It’s a regulated industry; we have lots of reporting requirements. We must be careful stewards of money coming from the state and federal grants, as well as tuition money. I don’t mind being accountable.”
For much of the two years since Miller became chancellor, the UNC system has been involved in a strategic planning process. That plan was recently completed.
“We have to set priorities. Our faculty group and the board of trustees are grappling with what to invest in, in the near term,” he said. “We have a certain accountability in our performance. We have to structure prior research goals, including those in marine science. [The plan] reads more like a business plan.”
While the revision process continues, Miller said that several directions are clear.
“We’ve got to continue to be fully engaged in the community, in K-12 education, in the Entrepreneurship Center, and the MarbioNC center, which we expect to flourish. We’re strong in film studies, writing, health studies,” Miller said.
“In terms of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), we’re trying to create on College Road something that’s new in North Carolina. We have a new director who’s fantastic. We’ve looked at all [the other entrepreneurship programs] in North Carolina and think we have a good model. Small businesses can get support to get bigger. It’s part of a rich economic development portfolio, and we’ll partner with Cape Fear Future, with Cape Fear Community College.”
Miller says he is excited about the potential for UNCW to surround the business community with the power of ideas and productive discussion.
“I have a basic economic motive: 13,000 students who will need jobs. They’ll either stay here or disperse, and take their ideas with them.”
Another clear direction for UNCW, Miller believes, is to continue its emphasis on marine science, maintaining an active research program.
“Marine biology is a precious, well developed, highly productive research and teaching program that is uniquely part of UNCW,” he explained. “Marine science has always been part of our university, the system’s ‘coastal university.’”
Miller noted that UNC President Tom Ross and other system leaders have expressed their vision for the “formidable capacity” that North Carolina holds for oceanic research and development of sea-based technology and products, and the crucial part the UNC system will play.
“It’s a systemwide approach, but UNCW will have a lead role,” the chancellor said.
Even as he talks about the ways in which UNCW will look for ways to commercialize aspects of its programs – in business and in marine science, especially – he clearly wants to maintain the liberal arts as the central part of undergraduate study, and to preserve what he considers the essence of the educational experience.
Miller points out that conversations between students and faculty, and among students themselves, fuel the growth process. But those conversations are hard to fit into a technology-driven teaching model that emphasizes online classes and other forms of e-learning.
“Those conversations, and the growth process, is what I hope, and need, to preserve. That is the crux of the value proposition,” Miller continued. “It all has to do with teaching, and that incomparable magic that occurs around the personal experience of teaching. That’s what we, at UNCW, need to bottle and sell. We have a chance to be a national model.”
The chancellor takes exception to those who say that public universities should focus primarily on programs that produce job-ready graduates.
“What job target are we shooting at?” Miller asks. “Emerging jobs – the jobs that haven’t even been thought of yet – those are the ones we are really training people for. And for those, what is important is excellent communications skills, adaptability and critical thinking.”
Miller cites his youngest son as an example. After finishing college, he became involved in the video games industry, a career outcome that had never occurred to his parents, nor been on the traditional job-readiness radar.
“Artificial intelligence; 3-D printing. What will be the applications of those? Freshmen need to start thinking, imagining what the world will be like in 10 years; what future needs will be. They need the right kind of guidance in thinking about where an arts and sciences degree can take them. Our son-in-law studied music as an undergraduate and now is a computer engineer with Apple. He doesn’t see anything inconsistent with that.”
In early August, Miller welcomed a new crop of mostly junior faculty members to campus, and reveled in the time he spent with them during their orientation activities.
“Most of these new faculty members are in their first tenure-track positions,” he said. “They are research-active and they are excited about getting with our students. We’re good at hiring and are really expecting our new faculty to change us.
“Our number one goal is to give students fantastic opportunities.”