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Leaders foresee campus revamp UNC, community college chiefs ally

She’s an academic, an economist by training who is prone to talking about international trade and global commerce. He’s a consummate politician, a North Carolina insider who sees the economy in terms of jobs created — and lost — throughout dozens of Tar Heel towns.

They seem an unlikely couple, UNC system President Molly Broad and state Community College President Martin Lancaster.

But together they are calling for a historic overhaul of the state’s higher-education systems — a multibillion-dollar transformation focused on creating new industries, providing jobs and continuously retraining workers who would otherwise be unemployed.

“There has been a fundamental shift in this state’s economy, and our higher-education systems must respond,” said Broad, who oversees the state’s 16 public universities. “The last time we had so many displaced workers was when the GIs returned from World War II. But they were in their 20s — not their 40s — and we were the dominant force in the world’s economy.”

No one asked Broad and Lancaster to develop a new master plan for the future of higher education in North Carolina — at least they weren’t asked directly. Their work was prompted by a law passed in 2003 that called for a “comprehensive study of the mission and educational needs” of the two systems. A preliminary report is due in April.

Many insiders see the study as a first step toward another bond referendum for higher education — a companion to the $3.1 billion package approved by voters in 2000. That money has triggered a building boom on campuses, where dozens of classrooms, labs, libraries and dorms are being built or renovated.

Broad and Lancaster acknowledge that their work today could help support another such bond, but they are looking far beyond any single building program.

From their perspectives, the state’s universities must create and attract entirely new types of businesses in fields such as biotechnology and nanotechnology. Then it would be up to the 59 community college campuses to train — and often retrain — workers for those jobs.

“You can only focus on the buffalo hunt for so long,” said Lancaster, referring to the practice of luring large manufacturing companies by offering tax breaks and other incentives. “You can hunt forever in some regions of our state and never land a thing. The buffalo aren’t coming back.”

  An auspicious union

It’s largely by coincidence that Broad and Lancaster are pushing the same vision at the same time. The two systems have cooperated in various ways through the years, but the universities have always dominated the community college system in money and prestige.

Lancaster and Broad, however, took over their current jobs within days of each other in 1997. Both are in their 60s, and neither can really claim seniority over the other.

And during the past few years — especially during the 2000 bond campaign and more recently when discussing how to spend Golden LEAF funds available through tobacco court settlements — both have come to better understand how much stronger they are when working together.

Lancaster, who has served in the General Assembly and U.S. Congress, has a list of political contacts that Broad can’t match. But as president of the UNC system, Broad has access to education funding that Lancaster can only dream about.

“Their skills and experience complement each other nicely,” said Brad Wilson, chairman of the UNC system’s Board of Governors — the final authority within the 16-campus network.

The team effort doesn’t mean either will abandon the traditional roles of the institutions. UNC will still be the first stop for traditional four-year students. Community colleges will still focus on improving basic skills and retraining workers.

But in recent appearances throughout the state as part of a “Listening Tour” with local leaders, the pair made it clear that a true partnership is needed. They are so familiar with the script that they can finish each other’s sentences.

To begin with, they say, programs involving both systems should be created from scratch so the first two years of a four-year degree can be completed at a community college. Currently, that happens systemwide only for students enrolled in college transfer classes — not the “applied sciences” such as nursing.

Lancaster would like to see a system in which all students could end their first two years at a community college equally prepared for work or completion of a four-year degree. Broad believes community colleges would be a logical place for some students to complete four-year degrees if the universities were too far away.

She also believes the state must vastly improve its abilities to teach and retrain people in rural areas using videos, the Internet and other approaches that are often referred to as “distance education.”

“Businesses are going to look at these ideas and think of them as a step in the right direction,” said Phil Kirk, president of N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. “I’m sure some people will look at their vision and accuse them of trying to build an empire, but I don’t think that’s really fair. Both of them will be gone before a lot of their ideas take shape.”

A long, broad process

The changes will take time partly because they require large sums of money to teach new students, start new programs, improve faculty salaries, replace obsolete equipment and develop new distance education courses.

“We are in a global skills race,” Broad said. “And when you look at the gaps we have in North Carolina, you see we are going to have to do things on a large scale.”

The UNC system has traditionally steered clear of talk involving the the nuts and bolts of the marketplace. But Wilson, the UNC board chairman, said the loss of manufacturing jobs and the arrival of biotech have dramatically changed the board’s longer-term priorities.

“What is happening in North Carolina’s economy is just as important as when the railroads arrived,” he said. “Railroads opened a whole new world and put others out of business. We need to be on the right side of this change.”

This far-reaching vision of higher education could surprise many lawmakers when the initial report is released.

Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, a Democrat from Manteo, applauded the thinking but said he wasn’t aware of its breadth. “I really don’t know what they are going to bring us.”

But Broad and Lancaster are confident lawmakers will quickly appreciate their message.  

From different vantage points, both have peeked over the state’s economic horizon to ponder life without significant changes. It’s not a pretty sight.

Staff writer Tim Simmons can be reached at 829-4535 or tsimmons@newsobserver.com.

UNC system President Molly Broad talks with Community College President Martin Lancaster as they leave the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh. They had appeared Tuesday in front of a legislative appropriations committee.

Staff Photo by Sher Stoneman

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