Jay Schalin of the Martin Center writes that University of North Carolina leaders should consider new options as they think about the next permanent system president.

The sudden departure of Margaret Spellings from the presidency of the University of North Carolina system presents a unique opportunity to address academia’s most serious problem.

The problem is intellectual, not operational or economic. Recent UNC presidents have focused on issues such as access, efficiency, and economic development, as did Spellings. All of these require some ongoing attention, but they are hardly cause for emergency measures. Higher education in North Carolina is very accessible; it has inexpensive community colleges and the UNC system is one of the most affordable in the country. It has 16 campuses with varying tuition levels and admissions standards. The North Carolina economy is, for the most part, roaring, and higher education will not fix the economic malaise in rural areas. Efficiency can always be improved, but it is not a burning issue at UNC; if the efforts of the last three presidents haven’t made improvements, then it is unlikely that another president cast in the same mold will accomplish much in this area.

One issue that is burning, at California brushfire levels, is that higher education has been captured by intellectual movements that will prove disastrous for our future society. It is the proverbial giant elephant in the room that nobody wishes to acknowledge while focusing on lesser problems. …

… Nobody expects the next UNC system president to be a full-fledged culture warrior eager to leap into the ideological fray. But he or she should at least acknowledge that a major problem exists beyond the needs to cut costs or boost graduation rates. There is an intellectual battle that needs to be fought, no matter how much it upsets entrenched interests and the permanently aggrieved. A one-sided university system does not serve the state well.

For the task at hand, a strong leader and reformer is required, not an establishment efficiency expert.