Student enrollment and retention are plunging at the University of North Carolina Asheville, and top leadership is once again departing, including Nancy J. Cable, the fifth occupant of the chancellor’s office in the last eight years.

Senior staff and faculty are leaving too, including tenured professors, at the highest rate in the entire UNC system. Many of them said their salaries have not kept pace with the rising cost of living in Asheville, especially in housing.

While overall student enrollment in the UNC System grew 7 percent since 2015, UNC Asheville fell by a stunning 25 percent, the biggest drop among the 16 public universities in the system, an Asheville Watchdog analysis found. Enrollment for the fall semester this year was 2,914, down 10 percent from the same period last year — and five times the rate of decline of the UNC System as a whole.

Enrollment at UNC-Asheville is now below 3,000 students. No other public university in the 17-school UNC System has had sharper declines. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

Of the incoming students UNCA is able to attract, a high number of them leave before graduation. Retention of students, measured as those returning for a second year of school, is now just 68.6 percent, the lowest level in 10 years, according to the Institutional Research, Effectiveness and Planning department at UNCA. In 2012, retention — a key metric of college and university performance — was 80.2 percent.

Michael Strysick, UNC-Asheville’s chief communications and marketing officer // UNCA photo

“Campus leadership has been and is well aware of the challenges and opportunities we face in terms of recruitment and retention,” said Michael Strysick, the university’s chief communications and marketing officer. “We have been under-resourced and under-funded for the past decade.” 

Universities nationwide are experiencing enrollment declines, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. But UNCA’s downward trends in key measures of academic institutional health — weaknesses that were evident even before the pandemic — raise questions about the campus’s future.

There is also a growing faculty concern that an increasingly political UNC System in Chapel Hill, whose Board of Governors is appointed by the Republican-dominated General Assembly, might try to exert more control over UNCA, one of the smallest and remotest schools in the system. UNCA is also the state’s only dedicated public liberal arts campus, in a town known for its liberal activism.

Faculty and Staff Turnover

UNCA tops the list for faculty and staff turnover across the whole UNC System, reaching 11.7 percent from academic year 2017/2018 to 2020/2021 — again, a trend that began before the pandemic.

“Morale is an issue,” said former UNCA assistant professor of biology Rebecca Helm, who left earlier this year.

Former UNCA assistant professor Rebecca Helm // UNCA photo

Former faculty members cited pay scales that haven’t kept pace with the high cost of living in Asheville, which also makes it harder to recruit and hire replacements. 

Strysick said UNCA has the second lowest-paid faculty in the system, trailing all but UNC Pembroke, in Robeson County near Lumberton. 

The median cost of a home in Robeson County is $84,600 — compared to Buncombe County where it’s $353,000.

Over the last five years, salaries for top teachers at UNCA have actually decreased. In 2017, the mean (average) salary for UNCA full-time instructional staff, including full, associate, and assistant professors as well as non-tenure-track staff, was $77,911, according to UNCA researchers. In 2021, the most recent year for which figures are available, the mean salary for those posts fell 6 percent to $73,389. 

UNCA Chancellor Nancy J. Cable // UNCA photo by Rafael Aguilera

Cable’s salary is $350,089. 

The faculty members also cited overwork, lack of resources, a lack of transparency and sense of disenfranchisement from university leadership decision-making.

Students are being taught by less-experienced and less-qualified teachers, as the university increasingly replaces tenured and tenure-track veteran faculty with lower-paid adjuncts, UNCA data show. And, because of the pandemic, many classes over the past two years have been taught remotely, a less effective way to teach and learn.

Nearly One-Third of Incoming Students Don’t Return

Academicians say UNCA’s 68.6 percent retention rate is particularly troubling.

“This metric matters greatly because more attrition happens in the first year than any other time, and it directly drives graduation rates in future years,” Jeffrey Konz, the director of Institutional Research at UNCA, wrote to faculty and staff colleagues in September. 

“Our retention issues are not driven by admission standards,” Konz said, yet “more than half of exiting students were in academic difficulty (UNCA PA <2.0), higher than in previous years.” PA refers to grade point average.

The declines in enrollment and retention are also financially troubling for UNCA because the state system uses those figures to calculate its support for each school. 

“Growth is the currency within the system,” Kevin McClure, associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, told Asheville Watchdog. And UNC Asheville is shrinking.

Peter Hans, president of the UNC System, said in an email to Asheville Watchdog, “Like universities across the country, UNC System schools are facing demographic headwinds driven by the nationwide decline in the pool of recent high school graduates. After several decades of growth, North Carolina’s population of 18-24-year-olds will be flat or declining over the next 20 years.”

Peter Hans, president of the UNC System

The COVID-19 pandemic hammered higher education nationally and in North Carolina. From 2021 to 2022, undergraduate enrollment in four-year public schools declined nationwide by 1.6 percent, while the UNC System declined by 2 percent.

UNCA’s enrollment decline started before then. In 2017 and 2018, under previous leadership, the admissions office discontinued high school recruitment visits, Strysick said.

And for the class entering in 2018, he said, the university increased the admissions rate — the percentage of students accepted of those who apply — to 93 percent, making UNCA among the least-selective schools and therefore less appealing to students.

Those two changes combined, Strysick said, were “unfortunate choices.”  

Strysick said he is hopeful that retention is beginning to turn around: 95 percent of this fall’s first-year students are registering for spring classes.

Turnover at the Top

The resignation Oct. 12 of Nancy J. Cable as chancellor of UNCA capped a series of key departures at the school, including the provost (the second-ranking position), and other top staff and faculty, including several college deans and tenured professors. 

Cable declined to be interviewed by Asheville Watchdog, handing off responses instead to Strysick, who recently replaced a senior staffer who left this summer.   

Strysick said UNCA’s enrollment challenges and faculty departures “had nothing whatsoever to do with [Cable’s] decision to step down as Chancellor.” She had an offer to become the executive director of the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust in Chapel Hill, allowing her to return to the world of philanthropy, he said. Cable previously was president of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Kimberly Van Noort // UNCA photo

Yet, in the context of institutional stability, Cable’s decision was another setback for UNCA. She was the fifth occupant of the chancellor’s office in the last eight years, a remarkable level of turnover at the top for a university. 

Cable was preceded by interim chancellor Joe Urgo in 2017-2018, chancellor Mary K. Grant in 2015-2017, and another interim chancellor, Doug Orr, in 2014. Anne Ponder was chancellor 2005-2014.

Kimberly Van Noort, formerly Senior Vice President, Academic Affairs for the UNC System, will take over as interim chancellor after Cable leaves at the end of December. 

Garakai Campbell // UNCA photo

Van Noort came to UNCA this summer to be interim provost, replacing Garakai Campbell, who left after serving as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs since June 2019. 

Van Noort in turn is expected be replaced by a permanent chancellor next year, which would make it an extraordinary tally of seven leaders in nine years.

“Based on the best data that we have, on average the tenure of a chancellor or president is around 6.5 years,” McClure, the UNC Wilmington expert on higher education management and leadership, told Asheville Watchdog. Multiple successions in an executive leadership position in that span of time “definitely creates challenges,” he said.

Plans Repeatedly Interrupted

One of the main challenges, and one that has roiled faculty, is that the university’s leaders develop new strategies or plans for change, then leave before the plans can be executed.

“Typically, what has been happening is you get a new chancellor and then a new provost, and then they all say: ‘Okay, we’re going to now do this,’” said Chris Hennon, who started at UNCA in 2005 and left his tenured professorship in atmospheric science earlier this year. “It’s been a lot of turnover in leadership. They plan all these big changes. And then by the time it gets to the point where we’re ready to go, they leave.”  

McClure also noted that the priority of interim leaders is often “just to keep the trains running,” making them unlikely to launch major initiatives. 

“And of course, as is the case here, it does lead to questions on the part of faculty around ‘what’s going on here?’ And it’s difficult to build up trust with important groups on campus, including faculty, staff and students,” he said.

Other Nearby Schools Are Less Expensive

Brian Drawert, a former UNCA professor of computer science, noted that the school was excluded from the 2018 NC Promise program that lowered tuition at four UNC System schools, including Western Carolina University, just an hour’s drive from Asheville. In-state students at Western Carolina pay $1,000 a year for tuition, one-fourth of what students pay at UNCA.

Former UNCA professor Brian Drawert // UNCA photo

“I would guess that this has exacerbated the already falling enrollment,” Drawert said. “All of these things together make me wonder if the UNC system is not intending to close UNCA in the near future and wonder if that decision is politically motivated.”

A spokeswoman for the UNC System said UNCA has the board’s full support, and that a UNC institution has never been closed.

Hans, the president of the UNC System, told Asheville Watchdog in an email that UNCA “has a proud history and serves as an anchor institution for a vibrant and fast-growing region. We’re confident that UNC Asheville can thrive in a changing education landscape, and we’re excited about the work underway.”

“Under-Resourced and Underfunded” 

Despite UNCA’s declining tuition income as its enrollment shrank, the school’s state funding was flatlined for the five years between 2017 and 2021 at an average annual allocation of $40.5 million, according to UNCA Institutional Research.  

But UNCA’s state funding increased last year as a result of  Cable’s multi-year advocacy for additional funds from the UNC System to support a “Revitalization Plan” that she put in place in 2019.  

The state provided $52.1 million for 2021-2022, a jump of $11.5 million over the previous academic year. 

Strysick said that the state’s additional funding included a one-time $3 million matching grant last year to create the Asheville Trust endowment, to help reduce or eliminate student debt; plus a recurring $7 million annually, composed of $2 million in scholarships and $5 million to strengthen enrollment and retention and improve student experience.  

This year the university would have received $47.6 million from the state, counting the newly added $7 million. But the drop in enrollment at UNCA has bitten into that sum.

Zoe Lonabaugh, a Biology and Environmental Studies major at UNCA, graduated with distinction as a University Research Scholar at commencement this month. Her dog Jack also donned the cap and gown. // UNCA photo by Rafael Aguilera

The UNC Board of Governors approved a proposal Nov. 17 that would cap the drop in 2023 funding at 4.5 percent. The cap will soften the blow to UNCA, which was facing a 5.7 percent drop amounting to a $2.7 million shortfall. It is estimated now that UNCA will lose $2.1 million. 

However, the North Carolina legislature this year approved a 3.5 percent increase in salaries and benefits for staff and faculty across the UNC System in an attempt to keep pace with inflation, giving UNCA an additional $2.8 million. 

The Revitalization Plan’s goals include increasing enrollment and retention, and the launch of four master’s degree programs: public health, climate resilience, creative writing, and engineering.

Graduate programs give the UNC System schools some financial cushion, McClure said. While the state controls tuition for undergraduate education, schools can, and do, charge more for their graduate programs. 

But the only master’s program that UNCA has added so far is in public health, in collaboration with UNC Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC).

Strysick said he was confident that the “Revitalization Plan” will put the school on “a comprehensive path forward to strengthen the University as a whole, which will in turn positively impact enrollment and retention.” 

2022 UNCA graduate Jarvis Brown at commencement this month // UNCA photo by Rafael Aguilera

Strysick added that a fresh marketing effort to attract students to the school is underway, including a website redesign, digital campaigns to build the applicant pool, more high school visits, additional campus tours for prospective students and their families, and more branding “to better articulate our market position.”

UNCA’s marketing will be contending with the low-priced tuition at four other UNC System schools: Western Carolina University in Cullowhee and Biltmore Park; UNC at Pembroke; Fayetteville State University; and Elizabeth City State University. Under the 2018 NC Promise program of the Board of Governors, which aimed to offer higher education in what were considered under-served areas, these schools have frozen tuition at just $1,000 a year for in-state students, compared to $4,122 at UNCA. 

Low Pay in High-Cost Asheville

The number of UNCA faculty, particularly tenured and tenure-track faculty, has declined in recent years, with adjuncts — part-time teachers who are paid less than faculty — teaching more and more classes.

In 2017, UNCA had 224 full-time instructional staff, with full professors, associate professors, and assistant professors making up 81 percent of the total, according to UNCA’s Institutional Research department. By 2021, the teaching staff had been reduced to 211, and the percentage of full, associate, and assistant professors fell to 72 percent. 

Fourteen faculty departed so far in 2022 alone, five of which were retirements, according to Christy Williams in human resources at UNCA. At least three others have taken leave and are no longer teaching, including tenured sociology professor Lyndi Hewitt, who is now an organizational development consultant.

“In four years, I struggled to find affordable housing,” Helm, the former assistant professor of biology who left earlier this year, told Asheville Watchdog. She said she was reluctant to leave, but faulted the state funding formula for lack of salary growth. She is now at Georgetown University.

“There are deeply passionate folks over there, but that deep passion can only take you so far when you can’t necessarily provide the type of life and standards that you’d like to have for your family,” said Sarah Broberg, the former communications chief at UNCA, who left in July to build her own consulting business. She said salaries “don’t even come close to touching inflation.”

Drawert, the former professor of computer science, shifted his status to visiting researcher so that he could complete a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health that ends next June. He works remotely from California.

“The financial support of the institution was just terrible,” Drawert told Asheville Watchdog. “They’re not paying enough to keep good faculty and staff.”

2022 UNCA physics graduate Via Weber at commencement this month // UNCA photo by Rafael Aguilera

Besides, Drawert said, “Our dedicated classrooms were just in terrible shape. Projectors were 10, 15 years old. In some computer labs, the desks were so old they had exposed metal that had cut me. The computer science department doesn’t have more than one dedicated classroom with computers in it.”

Nonetheless, he said, his students went on to well-paid jobs “making 150, 200 percent of what faculty were making.” Some landed prestigious jobs at NASA and the National Security Agency, he said.

Faculty unhappiness also stems from overwork, including an often heavy teaching load of four courses per semester, plus additional administrative and other assignments beyond teaching. Workload was the top concern identified by the Faculty Welfare and Development Committee as far back as 2018, when Cable started as chancellor.  

The committee said in a report that year to the Faculty Senate that the workload “is unmanageable, unsustainable and continues to grow.”

Also, where once the dean of students stepped in to help struggling students, that support is now largely left to faculty. Some faculty said they are now being blamed by the university’s leadership for students leaving.

Former UNCA professor Patrick Bahls // UNCA photo

Patrick Bahls, a tenured professor of mathematics, was at UNCA for 17 years until “the deteriorating state of affairs” prompted him to leave June 30. Bahls said many students recruited to UNCA “need a good deal of support, whether that’s academic or mental health, you name it, and we can’t provide the support they need.”

Helm said, “The issue for me is that when faculty are stretched thin and not supported, it is harder for them to support students. I worried that as the situation grew more difficult I wouldn’t be able to take care of them as they need to be.” 

“Students aren’t happy because they have this churn and burn of faculty,” said one tenured professor who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They don’t have consistent professors through their four years that they can bond with.”

Transparency and Shared Governance

Faculty complained about lack of transparency around key decisions by UNCA administrators. 

“Where that manifested was in the higher-level decisions about chairs, program directors and that sort of appointment.” Bahls said. “There would be a big pretense of we’re going to have a committee or we’re going to publish the job description, we’re going to publish the criteria. Here’s who is going to be involved. Then all of a sudden, after two or three months of silence, there would be an appointment made and people would be like ‘Huh, what just happened?’”

Current students are also concerned with transparency. 

“I think students have a right to know,” about leadership and faculty departures, said Celestine Epps, a senior studying mass communication. “Nowadays, whenever we see an email informing the student body of a faculty/admin departure, it’s like ‘who is it this time, guys?’”

“I’d like to know why (Cable’s) leaving,” said Olivia Kane, a transfer student and senior in interdisciplinary studies. “When they’re not forthcoming, most people’s automatic assumption is ‘Oh it must be some really big problem.’”

Not All Faculty Are Unhappy

Jeffrey Wilcox, a tenured professor of geology in the environmental studies department, said he is happy with his job. “I’m loyal to UNCA,” Wilcox said. “I want to see the school succeed.”

UNCA professor Jeffrey Wilcox // UNCA photo

But “the turnover of staff and faculty doesn’t help us,”  Wilcox said, noting that without a new permanent chancellor until summer, “change is even further off.”

Top administrative staff, including Amanda Bell, the former director of Institutional Research, Effectiveness and Planning, and Broberg, the former chief of communications and marketing, have departed in recent months. 

Between 2020 and 2021, three deans, a top post at the university, also left, including the dean of humanities, dean of natural sciences, and the dean of social sciences, according to UNCA faculty. 

Hans, who led the North Carolina Community College system before taking the reins at the UNC System, said in his email to Asheville Watchdog that the Board of Governors has been “focusing on affordability and value, investing in online options to better serve working adults,” and updating its funding formula to incentivize retention and student success. For UNCA and a few other schools the Board is increasing the admission of out-of-state students to 25 percent, from 18 percent, to bolster tuition income. Non-resident tuition at UNCA is $21,470 a year.

UNCA will now boost recruitment of out-of-state students to enhance overall enrollment, Strysick said. 

Concern Over Political Meddling

Yet, there is a lingering suspicion among faculty the Watchdog spoke to at UNCA that the Board of Governors could have some animosity toward the school — possibly because they misconstrue liberal arts education with liberal political inclinations — or at least a tendency to ignore the school and its needs.

“My perception is that UNC Asheville is an institution that doesn’t get a lot of attention, despite being in a location that itself garners quite a bit of attention,” said McClure, at UNC Wilmington. In part, he said this is because it is geographically far from the “point of power (Raleigh), and that matters.”

“The bigger thing I would be worried about if I were faculty there, is that we can’t seemingly figure out how to do a chancellor search in the system without politics being part of it,” McClure said.

The political meddling in the UNC Wilmington chancellor search was revealed in The Assembly story “Tim Moore’s Heavy Hand” in October.

“We thought that maybe we had escaped that. Now, I’m like, nobody’s going to escape it,” McClure said. He said he would not be surprised if someone in the state Republican political machine hasn’t got their eye on the Asheville chancellorship.

Concern about “undue political influence and bureaucratic meddling” hindering university governance recently prompted Gov. Roy Cooper to create a state-level commission to examine governance of the UNC System.

All eyes will now be on UNCA’s next chancellor search, which will unfold just as Cooper’s new commission gets under way. It is likely to be seen as a test case of how political influence is exercised across the system, and of how UNCA may be able to right its course.  

[Corrections: An earlier version of this article misidentified the location of UNC-Pembroke. It is in Robeson County, near Lumberton. A chart accompanying this article also misidentifies the university in Greenville, NC; it is East Carolina, not Eastern. The Watchdog regrets the errors.]


 Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Barbara Durr is a former correspondent for The Financial Times of London. Contact her at bdurr@avlwatchdog.org

Hayden Bailey, a journalism student at UNCA, contributed to this report.

Join the Conversation

24 Comments

  1. Very disturbing. Focus on retaining good faculty and student retention will improve. Hiring PR is the same foolish mistake Asheville PD is making. Lipstick on a pig comes to mind.

  2. Thanks for this excellent & revealing report on the current state of affairs at UNCA. I am a retired person living near the campus and observed the university’s construction of a large new parking lot on Edgewood Rd. a couple of years ago. It involved cutting down many mature trees and raised great objections by people living in the neighborhood. Why was this parking lot needed was the big question. Sure enough, driving or walking by there now, you see that the lot has never been filled and in fact rarely has but a few cars parked there. It’s used mainly by the church next door on Sundays. What a waste of university resources when it could be used on more needed projects. I wonder if the Watch Dog knows anything about this.

  3. I love your efforts to bring back in depth investigative reporting. However, I think it would be more effective if done in several parts. I wear out before the end and thus lose the some of the impact of an otherwise great job of reporting. Many thanks. I have an idea for a story. How do I talk to someone about it? Joe Wheeler

  4. No one should be surprised by the likelihood of “political meddling” by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Not only do many of the GOP politicians confuse “liberal arts” with liberal political indoctrination, they also imagine that “critical thinking” equates with criticism of them. Troglodytes should not be in elective office, and if they are, they should not be empowered to control the education of others; but as long as the right wing is ascendant and unbridled in its hunger for absolute power, they will be.
    It’s really a shame. I have known five of the UNCA chancellors, up through Anne Ponder, and all of them were dedicated to education at its best; but since the GQP took over the NC Republican Party, higher education, as well as public education in general, have been on a steady decline in the state, and the vaunted UNC system — the first state university system in the entire nation — has faced the possibility that it will also be the first to end.

  5. To be real, students are leaving because the school isn’t that great. Having UNCA on your resume doesn’t get you very far.

  6. The politicizing of the UNC started several years ago when schools were pressured to accept funds to underwrite far right views. If memory serves, the Koch Brothers funded these efforts. The UNC system was soon directed by a ultra conservative board and legislators who wanted to put themselves in charge. As the Legislator leaned further to the right, educational values diminished. Public education is not cherished by many lawmakers. They’d rather direct funds to Charters and private schools which might share their conservative and religious values. What happened to the scholarly educators of the past? Bill Friday is missed by folks who care about sound well rounded education.

    And the public schools need a big boost of funds for salaries as well as respect for the hard working teachers and staff. We need another Jim Hunt in a leadership role. One daughter left the state to teach in Maryland and then Maine where her Salary was bumped almost $30,000. Believe it or not, teachers can leave for bordering states to increase their salaries $10,000 or more immediately.

    I’m concerned because I think the NC legislature has a goal of dumbing down the NC population.

    1. The politicizing if the UNC system is as old as the UNC system. We are simply experiencing the current version.

  7. Lots of information, and a lot of alleged causes for the drop in enrollment and retention. You’ve uncovered fodder for future investigation. The crisis at UNCA, with all its contributors, sounds like it’s another — `perfect storm’.

    Choosing and putting in place the correct UNCA leadership is key to solving UNCA’s immediate problems. Simply filling vacant positions is not a solution.

  8. I believe we are in the early innings of a seismic shift in college attendance in the US. Small boutique colleges (I consider UNCA one of those) are particularly going to struggle and if associated with a larger system, run a great risk of closure and program consolidation with other facilities. UNC Western is only surviving for now on extra cheap tuition; how long will that last? College education has been one of many great rip-offs of the past 25-30 years. We all know who benefited and who didn’t.

    1. Education has never been worthless. Disinvestment by stated and profit driven privatization of financing has been the ripoff. All indicators are that college graduates earn more, are healthier, are less likely to be criminals, have more stable families, contribute more to the economy, and pay more taxes than less educated citizens. Mike Reynolds

  9. Think the piece is about 10 years too late and reverses the cause and the effect.

    UNCA’s enrollment peaked in 2015, yes, and has declined into 2022, but was it really growing that much from 2008 to 2015? Nope.

    The school has been stagnating for a long time. It’s a always been a quiet school with a regional presence. What’s the draw? The anemic athletics program, a fuzzily defined “liberal arts” education? A STEM degree from a school that few recruiters know about, let alone visit?

    Lack of state investment or leadership turnover is a product of the school having no real brand or enduring draw for potential students.

    There was a period it used to brag about how many of its graduates went on to get further degrees elsewhere (of course mostly masters and doctorates and the like) – but back up for a second: how self defeating is that? Our degree is so good you can go get a better one with it.

  10. This is sad indeed. When I was a student at UNCA in the mid 80s, it was an excellent, affordable small school. I had a number of quality, caring professors. And yes, many of my classmates went on to get advanced degrees elsewhere. I grew up as a faculty kid of a large university (now w/ enrollment over 50,000) and I knew I didn’t want to go to a massive school like that one. I didn’t want to have many of my classes in lecture halls with 150-200 students. I much preferred a small school with approachable professors who had the time to know the students.

    There is a valuable place in education for quality small affordable schools. It’s a damn shame the powers that be won’t value UNCA. And it’s a damn shame that our elected state officials from WNC aren’t advocating for UNCA.

  11. This is not surprising. I recall a meeting in Chapel Hill with then President William Friday, Chancellor Highsmith of UNCA, Roy Carroll System planning officer and a few other. We were there to discus who would teach which courses on the UNCA campus between WCU and UNCA. At the time WCU offered undergraduate courses in Asheville, some at UNCA, some at the veterans facilities in east Aheville. (My wife earned her Masters from WCU by taking classes in Aheville traveling to WCU main campus maybe 6 or 8 times including her graduation). I had served on what was called “The Joint Planning Committee” between the two schools. Our task was to resolve duplication of offerings, particularly on the UNCA campus. President Friday was particularly frustrated with our Chancellor who was unable to clearly offer any solution. I was sitting across from Mr Friday and suggested what I felt was as simple solution: UNCA offered all undergraduate courses, WCU offered graduate courses. Mr. Friday liked that notion. UNCA was touting itself as North Carolina’s only public undergraduate liberal arts university with a special mission to offer affordable option compared to alternatives in the private educational sector at much higher prices. Problem solved? Nooo! Of course not.

    UNCA has always suffered “Mission Creep”. Proud of the Liberal Art designation, yet major elements desired to be a regional Master’ level institution. Such division remains unsustainable. This is not rocket science.

    Add political ignorance, UNCA’s source of funding, about what Liberal Arts means combine that with internal uncertainties and the institution loses its way!

    Years go by, Leaders come and they go. Students come and they go. Every new leader promises change and revision of the Mission Statement, creation of yet another “Master Plan”, et. Campus politics intensify, then recede, then intensify like children arguing over toys in a sand box. Academic leaders, Provosts they are now called, were either of marginal competence or faced Chancellors of less competence. A few faculty were like wolves seeking power scrapes. Most faculty worked exceptionally hard with their students in an environment of politicized resource allocations unbecoming of an institution that often gained some PR recognitions.. Reality vs. image needs to agree. Often for UNCA that match was confused. For some years the mantra was “Fake it until you make it”. We never fully made it as we never stuck with the core undergraduate liberal arts mission.

    I grew tired after decades of leadership positions, either elected or appointed at virtually all levels. My wife became seriously ill. The wolves began to attack, I left under a cloud with aid of my legal team. No this report is not a surprise, but it is sad.

    Leading any post secondary institution is difficult. I liken it to herding cats, often very intelligent independent feral cats. Without a consistent Mission based strong leader cats seek survival for themselves. The Provost is key in herding these cats.

    A core issue for UNCA is understanding just what is a liberal arts education. First it has little to nothing to do with current far left vs far right politics. In 1926 Everett Martin wrote he meant a liberal education sets our minds free and allows us to engage the search for the “good life” or a way of living. This does not exclude technical education, career education but it does offer the ability to include consideration of morality, fairness and justice for all.

    I fear some of my former colleagues and leaders did not really understand the tasks and challenges required to build UNCA into a liberal art model of education. It isn’t about size, in fact most excellent liberal arts institution strive not to join the “big box” version of post secondary institutions.

    1. Editor’s Note: Dr. Browning joined the UNC Asheville faculty in September 1970 and worked at the university as a professor of economics, with a concentration on university governance and organization, until his retirement in 2013. He served two terms as president of the Faculty Assembly and helped establish UNC Asheville as a public liberal arts university.

      1. A sad tale about UNCA and the potential ramifications are perplexing.
        I was at WCU during the time UNCA agreed to become an all undergrad institution. There was much discussion and, if I remember correctly, UNCA would be given an additional sum of funds each year if they stayed undergrad and give up adding any new graduate programs beyond the MA in Liberal Studies that was on their books. Do they still get those funds? It seems that UNCA is offering new masters programs as other similar sized universities are doing in order to stay afloat.

  12. The funding is directly related to enrollment. UNCA enrollment is decreasing. It sounds like parents and students are choosing different colleges. Has UNCA’s reputation declined?

  13. Why hasn’t the author interviewed faculty leaders, especially officers and members of the Faculty Senate?

    1. Faculty leaders were consulted, and many of those quoted both anonymously and not are/were faculty leaders. Signed anonymously, faculty leader.

  14. The UNC System.
    – UNCA is a liberal arts institution. Meaning our values and morales should focus on building the consciousness of others. The UNC system need to revise policies, position leaders and include others who intentions aligns with the institution. It’s expensive to live in Asheville as well so remember to spread funding.
    UNC Asheville.
    – Genuinely invest in your Black and Brown staff, faculty and students. Do not be like other institutions, listen to your Asheville community and eliminate being performative. It’s cool to be different and racism is weird! Many students leave UNCA because certain bad fruits spoils the bunch. Overall, from academics, healthy eating and being socially aware. UNCA is actually a good school.
    Asheville City
    – Invest in BLACK ASHEVILLE. Make housing more affordable and BIPOC communities more visible! You see US!! Let me not speak on our EDUCATION and it’s school systems.
    #resident

    1. Thanks for the catch, Mike, and apologies to the Pirates. It’s East Carolina University, not Eastern. East Carolina University is a public research university in Greenville, NC. It is the fourth-largest university in North Carolina.

  15. I posit that part of UNCA’s problem is that it does not have what many of the current TikTok generation of high school students want: it does not have strong school spirit or campus involvement; it does not have particularly active campus athletics of any kind, and specifically, no football program that draw a lot of student attendance and participation. One might make a credible argument about the legitimacy or worthiness of investing the millions of dollars that schools like App State, NC State and UNC-CH do in their basketball and football programs…but the fact remains that these programs garner a campus national TV exposure. If the student body is engaged and present at these activities, it does lend a certain je ne sais quoi to the perceived “college experience”, which many HS students see on socials, etc. and want for themselves. For those of us who attended a school with a top football or basketball program, we would largely agree that the school spirit and loyalty engendered by attending games, tailgates, and viewing parties for post-season conferences and championships was a significant part of our college experiences. And has contributed in large ways to our nostalgia and fondness for our institutions and college days gone by, as alumni.

    Given that UNC-A will likely never invest in such programs, or find itself with the traditional campus-centered college experience that many HS students are seeking, to my mind, their best competitive advantage is to market their location in ASHEVILLE. Asheville offers myriad activities and features that appeal to a Gen Z prospective inhabitant: from the food scene, to great venues, to record stores, to diverse outdoor recreational options, to a thriving arts & creative culture. If UNC-A can find stable and visionary leadership, and right its image problem by focusing on its location in a desirable area, perhaps it can overcome its built-in disadvantages to the average 18 year old, looking for a “grammable” experience.

    1. Meaning of grammable in English

      grammable
      adjective slang (also ‘grammable)
      US /ˈɡræm.ə.bəl/ UK /ˈɡræm.ə.bəl/

      attractive or interesting enough to be suitable for posting on the social media service Instagram:
      My plate of food was delicious, but not very grammable.
      the famously ‘grammable sunsets on the island of Santorini

      https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/grammable

      Cheers!

  16. I graduated from UNCA in December with a degree in Management. As a final project for a marketing class we were divided into two groups and tasked with producing a report and presentation related to declining enrollment in the Department of Management and Accountancy (DMA), as well as recommendations for how to improve it.

    My group focused on the very specific problems within DMA: a general lack of courses; no courses in business software; a disconnect between job listings and courses; confusion regarding what a degree in Management (versus Business) really meant; an outdated course catalog (over 25% of courses listed had not been offered in the previous 5 years); no obvious outreach or marketing; and an antiquated online presence. All of this added up to make DMA unappealing to current students with undeclared majors, as well as with prospective students.

    The other group in that class approached the problem by focusing on the student experience, which is lacking to say the least. Their thought process was that by improving the student experience it would boost enrollment overall, and have a halo effect for DMA. The key issues they identified centered around how poorly the school engages with prospective and enrolled students. Communication with students is abysmal, there is no consistent engagement through any social media, as noted in the article the school does not do high school visits, the website is lackluster and poorly designed, and there is effectively no community engagement. Even the things UNCA does well, such as having smaller class sizes, offering mentoring programs with local business leaders, and providing undergraduate research opportunities, are not marketed.

    I do find it curious that so many people bring up the NC Promise tuition cap at WCU as a major factor in enrollment discrepancies. The difference in combined tuition and fees between the two schools is $111.42 per semester, with UNCA costing $3,690 and WCU coming in at $3,578.58. In the surveys my classmates conducted, many current students at UNCA said the NC Promise program made them look at WCU. However, once they realized it cost basically the same that was no longer a significant factor.

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