Thursday, November 07, 2013

Carolina North and the cloudy future of brick and mortar higher ed

Went running at Carolina North yesterday, the old area those of us growing up in Glen Heights used to refer to as "The Woods," because of all the trees there.  To catch glimpses of fall foliage from afar (check out all that alliteration, kids!  Do try that at home), I ended up running on the trails around the Horace Williams Airport, which is either closed or slated to close to make way for the proposed Carolina North Campus of UNC.

This campus will add, in phase 1, 800,000 square feet to house the schools of Law and Public Health, and other stuff, and will eventually expand to 3 million square feet for who knows what.  As Natalie used to say:  "Thassalot!"

However, it's all held up right now, there's no budget for it, not even real architectural drawings, according to profs at the Law School, which is Phase 1. And the abstemious NC General Assembly is not big on shelling out ducats.

And Carolina North is one of the key strategic drivers for the Central West redevelopment plan in Chapel Hill, which is currently being pushed through process in our municipal government.  In principle, it espouses a lot of smart pro-density policies which are good.  But it's in pretty sensitive ecological areas (Airport Road/MLKJ Blvd and Estes), perching atop pretty steep drops to a key creek which floods.

But here's the question that came to me as I ran:  does UNC really need this new campus?  A friend was recently telling me that the Kenan-Flagler Business School is losing money, and I was on campus there during the middle of the day sometime last year and it was a ghost town, all these nice facilities empty, hear a pin drop quiet.  Couldn't Law or Public Health use some of that excess capacity?

From a strategic perspective, there's a general feeling that the broad recalibration of the economy and the place of higher ed within it, the emergence of MOOCs, and most importantly the shift in the dependency curve occasioned by the retirement of the Boomers means that there will be huge competitive pressures brought to bear on higher ed, and that 10, 15, 20, 25% of higher ed institutions will go out of business.  That's a lot of brick and mortar lying fallow.  Why shouldn't the UNC system wait for some of this creative destruction and shift functionality to one of them?  Yes it would mean uprooting some faculty, and might be bad for Chapel Hill.  But I think in our heart of hearts we know that the intense clustering of smart and affluent people in narrow ZIP codes really isn't good for society.  Better to "spread the wealth around a little."  Send some professors to Zebulon, what the hell.  It will pull up their economies, tax bases, and school systems, and would be good for NC.

OK.  I'm rambling and procrastinating.

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