Nancy and Lou

UNCA chancellor Nancy Cable with Asheville attorney Lou Bissette. / Mark-Ellis Bennett photo

Nancy Cable, UNC Asheville’s new chancellor, was recently invited to speak at Leadership Asheville Forum, where she shared the vision she has for the university.

Former Asheville mayor and past chair of the UNCA board of directors Lou Bissette introduced her.

“I was lucky enough to participate in the search for the new chancellor,” Bissette said. “In this search, I can tell you, the first opportunity I had to meet with Nancy I was pretty much convinced that she was the person for this job.”

Cable, UNCA’s eighth permanent chancellor, said she was thrilled to reveal why she was drawn to this position.

“I have had a long career in higher education. Since 1977, I spent a number of years on a variety of different campuses trying to work with and learn from others, and help to lead those places.” She said her love of North Carolina is deep, and abiding, and long. “Despite the fact that I went to Charlottesville, Maine, and Jacksonville, my heart never left North Carolina.”

“Most importantly,” Cable said, “I’m still ready for a challenge in my professional career. I have no need to be important, but I do have a big need to be useful, and I’m hoping that’s what I’ll be in the many years ahead.”

To comment on the role of chancellor and current trends in higher education, Cable quoted Terrence MacTaggart, a national leader in the field.

“The current environment for presidents in higher education is more dynamic, challenging, and threatening, yet full of extraordinary potential than at any other time in the past 50 years or more. Presidential challenges are: scarcity of resources, partisan conflict, and student activism. All of these have intensified in the last decade. New challenges are upon us, the influence of social media, and the advent of more disruptive technologies all contribute to a challenging drama in leading higher education institutions,” MacTaggart wrote.

“While most presidents certainly recognize those forces, effective ways to address them can be elusive. Increasingly, trustees too, especially executives in business and healthcare, recognize that today’s dynamic conditions bring fresh approaches to new leadership and governments. Differences on the board include people who see the challenges, but are unwilling to accept the need to change. This can also be true in faculty. Such differences on the board and in the institution can reflect just a few of the contrasting perspectives from constituents that institutional leaders must take into account,” MacTaggart continued.

Cable defined exactly what she sees has changed.

“We have an eroding value proposition on why one seeks a higher education degree. We all grew up and went through higher education perhaps when there was deep and widespread faith that a college degree would account as a ticket to a higher income and much greater opportunity. That was seen as important all the way back in 1860s when the land grant colleges like Cornell and A&Ts were founded. It had new importance with the GI Bill in the 1940s that brought a whole new demographic shift to higher education in America for both private and public institutions. But that value proposition and the direct line from getting a college degree to having a more prosperous life has been shaken.”

While elite colleges and universities have no problem filling their classes with affluent students, other challenged business models leave it unclear how we can connect a low price point with a quality education.

“When teaching is done right, it’s just like dentistry—it’s one human to one human. When you look at the business model of dentistry, the only place where price increases have been seen in higher education is in the sector of dental health in America. That’s because it’s such a one on one enterprise,” Cable said.

A chancellor must be ever watchful of the stressful gap between revenue and the expense of maintaining a school’s academic structure. Cable can see how the elite colleges envy UNCA’s relatively low price point for in-state and out-of-state students. “That gives us market strength that is part of the reason I came here, and part of the reason I believe so strongly in delivering liberal arts and sciences education to all students in North Carolina and our contiguous states.”

Declining state support is a huge concern.

“We, as a state, need to be ever vigilant to our constitutional premise that we have to be as low-cost as possible, but we also want to maintain our stature as one of the highest and strongest and most academically active and innovative systems in the whole 50 United States. And it’s a thrill to know that I may be a part of that in the years ahead,” Cable said.

Another threatening reality is the resurgence of student activists. These Millennial and Post-Millennial students are very adept at exploiting social media. Protests can happen in an instant, spread like wildfire, and before administrators or leaders in the residence halls know it’s happening parents are calling.

“This notion of social activism returns to the days of the 60s, 70s and early 80s. Most of the causes that students are advocating are just ones; income inequality, addressing issues of diversity inclusion and equity, working to reduce or eliminate the scourge of racism, and obviously sexual misconduct issues that are manifested in the #MeToo generation,” she said.

Cable said there is a need for shared governments in higher education. In years past the president made decisions based on feasibility and what he thought would be in the institution’s best interest.

“Now we’re in a place where faculty particularly, but also staff, want to be involved in decision making. When the common good is in play they have a right to ask for that.” She said it’s now becoming common practice across the U.S. “We have always been a faculty led institution and I believe we will always be that, but what I like is the new bridges that are being built from the administration to the faculty.”

Cable said half of the jobs students will take or aspire to will not be in the same form in which they are currently configured in today’s society.

“The new reality gives us new opportunities to educate students in an integrative way.” She said students need to develop the emotional intelligence to advance and work through close collaboration. It is anticipated that the number one skill necessary for workforce needs in the next decade is critical thinking in a collaborative way. “It’s not just having the critical thinking to have understood enough background to contribute to the solution of the problem, but being able to do it with people who both agree and disagree with you—an ever time tested definition of leadership.”

Cable said that UNCA’s mission is to foster workforce ready, thoughtful people. She thinks the “soft skills” taught in a liberal arts education are the cornerstones for the thoughtforce behind the workforce.

As for her vision for UNCA’s future, Cable remains mum. She said that vision is a work in progress, and looks forward to addressing it another time.

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