How UNC operates in a permanently changed world

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the writer’s Sept. 25 state of the university address.

Crisis may provoke the thinking that initiates change, but genuine transformation takes time.

We could have done dramatic things to demonstrate our poverty when the state made its latest budget cuts, but we’ve focused instead on how we will continue to fulfill our promise of transformative education delivered in a fiscally sustainable way. We’re in this for the long haul, and that is where we’re directing our energy.

Beginning in 2009, we redefined planning as an ongoing, iterative process of taking control of our own future. We started this work by thinking about who we are, building on the concept of the exemplary teaching and learning community we identified. Through a series of campus conversations, we articulated a vision to provide students with opportunities for transformative education by focusing on the intersections among academics, research and community.

To fulfill that vision, we’re now developing and connecting multiyear plans that address nine areas comprising UNC’s core mission and five major university-wide support functions. (You can find the details about our planning on the Higher Learning Commission Self-Study page of the UNC website.)

This work is truly transformative and I’m optimistic about where it will take us. We will be prepared to deal with the funding model for public higher education that is irretrievably broken.

This is not a choice to shortchange higher education, but states are under ever-increasing pressure to fund many competing needs. In Colorado, projected cost increases for K-12 education, Medicaid and corrections may render the state unable to fund higher education at all within a few years.

At the same time, the structure of our economy is fundamentally changing. Our economic health is increasingly dependent on educated citizens, and it’s only going get harder to participate in the economy without postsecondary education. In terms of the United States’ international position, we have gone from being the most educated nation in the world to being 16th — other nations have passed us by.

The scale and pace of the change around us requires us to think deeply about how we deliver on our mission as public funding disappears and higher education becomes more important than ever. We’re getting a lot of advice from policy makers, pundits and politicians about how we should respond to this permanent change.

As a university, we have the opportunity and the obligation to think about far weightier matters than the bottom line. Our focus is on people, both as individuals and as communities, and therefore on the future.

The human factor, the shared responsibility for leadership, the necessary creativity and opportunity to learn by failing are the very things that set us apart from businesses. Of course, we have to operate efficiently and effectively. Because we do so in service to something other than profit, management concepts from the business world don’t automatically translate to the university setting.

The idea that bigger is better is perhaps the most common industrial concept that gets misapplied to universities. Transforming lives through education has never been a volume-based enterprise, and with the recent changes in state funding, we are no longer even funded that way.

It’s perspective that allows us to take control of our own future. For example, we understand how the structural deficit in Colorado’s budget will likely affect UNC’s future state funding. We see the need for more students to earn meaningful degrees. And we know that as a university community, we value our people. With this perspective, in spite of the turmoil, we have:

• identified well over $6 million in sustainable cost savings;

• strategically built reserves;

• avoided layoffs;

• invested in salaries;

• learned a tremendous amount about creating a business model for a public university without a preponderance of public funding;

• articulated who we are in a way that resonates with people;

• and spent some very productive time on leadership matters so we are able to 
achieve the transformation required of us. 

We know what is required to fulfill the unique mission of the University of Northern Colorado. We can’t escape the context around us, but we can decide to focus on what matters.

Kay Norton is president of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. A video recording and transcript of Norton’s full address are available at


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