Tone down the rhetoric


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Value from education

In a Feb. 3rd Associated Press story titled “Texas Fight Highlights Higher Ed Culture Clash,” Justin Pope asked if there is still a place for public universities, such as the universities of Michigan, Texas and California-Berkeley, that seek to compete with the world’s best. (Actually, they are some of the best.) UNC-Chapel Hill is in that league. Pope posed the dichotomy of elite education vs. affordable and efficient options. This may, in fact, be a false dichotomy.

In another piece on the debates, Bob Ashley argued that, “A key benefit of higher education is learning how to learn.” He quoted from an interview that Sara Rimer (my sister), then a New York Times education reporter, conducted with the late James O. Freedman, retired president of Dartmouth College. Freedman said that, “Liberal education opens our eyes to what life is principally about…It’s about developing a moral compass and some understanding of how society works, how democracies work.”

Yes, there is a place for UNC-Chapel Hill and universities the caliber of this one.

In writing about the value of a liberal arts education and the need to protect flagship universities, I’m not seeking to defend our School of Public Health. Nearly all our students leave here with jobs. Yet many of them began their higher education journeys embedded in the liberal arts, as I did.

I want the citizens of my adopted state, North Carolina, to understand that the greatness of UNC-Chapel Hill benefits them in at least three ways:

  1. Much of the outstanding research done here by our faculty, staff and students aims to solve problems in N.C. See the article in Endeavors magazine about water researchers in our School and the College of Arts & Sciences who are helping to make our state’s water safer, more accessible and more abundant. This isn’t arcane, cloistered research that only produces papers in prestigious journals (although there certainly are lots of papers). It’s research that is practical, useful and used right here in N.C., just as a lot of the other research on our campus and other UNC campuses. Research offers great return on investment. According to the UNC-Chapel Hill Office of Sponsored Research, Carolina’s $803 million in research funding for the fiscal year 2010 generated approximately $1.37 billion in economic impact.
  2. Our students are more likely to get jobs (compared to students at many other schools of public health) when they graduate, partly because of this university’s great reputation. Being a flagship university pays many dividends. Many of these alumni remain in N.C., take on important jobs across our counties and contribute to a healthy economy. They keep on giving.
  3. Our state’s students get access to one of the top three schools of public health, sandwiched between Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Harvard School of Public Health, but at a fraction of their cost. We’re a great value, even with tuition increases that have been necessary for our survival over the last few years.

Value for money, return on investment and giving back. We, in public health and UNC-Chapel Hill’s other professional schools, deliver. We are great, partly because the University overall is great. We’re not islands. We’re part of the whole. The spirit of inquiry, value of learning and the depth and breadth of knowledge being discovered, communicated and transmitted here have their center in liberal arts. It is no coincidence that so many of our most successful scientists and professionals got their start in the liberal arts. As Bob Ashley wrote Sunday, regardless of career path, “Higher education is learning how to learn. Whatever career path…we choose, being schooled in how to adapt, how to learn new skills, how to collaborate and innovate [is] important.”

We can only know the emerging fields that will someday become necessities by looking in the rear-view mirror, and that makes it difficult to declare which fields are superfluous as some are trying to do. Google, one of the most successful businesses in the world, whose algorithms inform the world, was built by people with backgrounds in linguistics at a time when the very field was being considered for the academic chopping block. If we only encourage the fields needed today or in the next five years or so, we’re circumscribing all our futures. Swahili may seem like an unnecessary luxury to some politicians, but let’s see how well American businesses do in some parts of Africa’s emerging economies if none of us learn that language.

There’s a place for job training, and I am committed to preparing our students for jobs. That’s a responsibility of a professional school. But I want to do that in a University that doesn’t just think about what graduates will do and how much they will earn in the first six months after graduation, a poor measure of lifetime earnings. I want, and we need, a university that prepares graduates for what they will do, how they will collaborate and innovate, and how they will contribute to a better state and a better world over their lifetimes. That’s a better measure of men and women.

Happy Monday. Barbara

Featured Posts

  1. […] 9. Monday Morning is a public health blog updated regularly every Monday. The blog primarily discusses issues that have caught the attention of its author, Dr. Barbara Rimer, Dean of the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Topics range from preventative measures against certain types of cancers, to general commentary on the state of public health discourse in the United States and beyond. Highlight: Tone Down the Rhetoric […]

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