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September 2006
A Clarion Call to Action
By Lisa Hoffmann

The newly inaugurated University of North Carolina (UNC) President Erskine Bowles most recently served as U.N. Deputy Special Envoy for Tsunami Relief during 2005. He describes the devastation he saw as he flew low over the Asian coastline as “a horror show that just wouldn’t end.” No one will forget the news footage depicting enormous walls of water washing over Indonesian beaches, surprising and overtaking hundreds of thousands of bewildered natives and tourists, and the destruction left in the wake of the strongest tsunami in decades.

While working with former Presidents Clinton and Bush on Tsunami Relief, Bowles had the opportunity to tour a variety of businesses and educationa institutions across Southeast Asia. What he learned as he toured those facilities disturbed him almost as much as the flattened homes, twisted trees and upended boats he’d seen scattered along the coast.

“What I saw in Asia changed the way I think, the way I act, what I think is important, how I will do my job, and what I will focus on,” Bowles says seriously. “I came back knowing that if we don’t get more of our own people better educated, the jobs of the future are not going to be here, they’re going to be over there. There is an economic shift coming at us like a tsunami.”

 

The Education Equation

In his UNC inaugural speech, Bowles reflected upon the impact of global competition on North Carolina’s economy. As the farming, textiles, apparel and furniture industries lose ground, unemployment among unskilled workers rises. According to the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center, only 55.7 percent of North Carolinians have a high school diploma and just 22.5 percent hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. The latter drops to 15.1 percent in rural areas.

“I saw MIT-educated managers in plants in Southeast Asia,” Bowles says. “I saw the most high-speed equipment that money can buy on the factory floor. I saw people with great work ideals, strong math and science backgrounds, and productivity that you just could not believe. And it scared me.”

Clearly, North Carolinians aren’t just competing with surrounding states for jobs. A knowledge-based global economy means American workers are going toe-to-toe with workers from China, Russia, India and the Philippines. Not only do we have to educate more young Americans, but we must emphasize math and science to develop our knowledge-based resources, Bowles emphasizes.

Bowles discovered that, in Singapore, 44 percent of eighth graders scored at the most advanced level of math and science. Only seven percent of American eighth graders score at the most advanced level and less than 34 percent of students in North Carolina are even proficient in reading, math, science or writing, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. Statistics state that for every 100 eighth graders in North Carolina, approximately 58 will graduate from high school, 38 will go to college, 28 will return for the second year, and only 18 will graduate.

“That was fine in my day, because there were plenty of moderate-income, low-skill jobs out there,” Bowles explains. “But those jobs are gone, and they’re not coming back.”

Despite his position in higher education, Bowles believes that the key to overcoming this crisis in education is to start in kindergarten. If we don’t fix kindergarten through 12th grade, garner more interest in math and science, and keep more kids in school through graduation, we won’t have more candidates for university education.

 

The University’s Role

President Bowles believes that the place to start fixing the problems in elementary, middle and high school is with the teachers. They’re not paid enough, they work in poor conditions, and there just aren’t enough math and science teachers coming down the pike. As the chief administrator of a 16-campus public university dedicated to the service of North Carolina and its people, Bowles is uniquely positioned to address these concerns.

His first order of business is to make the university system more efficient and effective so that more funds can be directed into the classrooms. Bowles enlisted Krista Tillman, president of Bellsouth in North Carolina, to head a commission to examine operations and see how each campus and organization can run more efficiently. Bowles is also cutting administration costs and funneling that money into ways to get more and better teachers into K-12 classrooms.

“In 1931, former U.S. Senator (N.C.) and UNC Professor Frank Porter Graham said, ‘The public schools are resourced in the university and the university is resourced in the public schools. They go up or down together,’” Bowles says. “That’s just a fact and it is still true today.”

From 15 schools of education throughout the University of North Carolina system, only three physics teachers graduated during the past four years.

“There’s a good reason for this,” Bowles explains. “If you want to go out and work in the private sector after getting a physics degree, you can make $41,000 your first year and you’ve got pretty good work conditions. Or you can go work in our public schools and make $23,000 and have pretty tough working conditions.”

The university has asked the legislature for 300 in-state and 134 out-of-state loan scholarships for prospective teachers. The state would forgive the loans, designated for math and science majors, after graduates taught for four years in North Carolina. Bowles and his staff have also requested scholarships for 800 lateral-entry teachers already in the classroom so that they may become fully licensed without cost to them.

     In addition, Bowles hopes to get differential pay for math teachers in some of the state’s poorest counties so that they can make as much teaching as they might make in the private sector.

“North Carolina, like every other state in the union, has to wake up and start valuing teachers,” Bowles asserts. “I think it’s the most important job in the world and you pay for what you value.”

The university introduced an intensive program this summer for the principals from 18 public high schools that Judge Manning threatened to close due to underachievement. UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School is teaching them management, leadership, finance and budgeting skills.

“It’s about leadership,” Bowles emphasizes. “The leaders of our public schools are principals and we as a university have to do a better job of producing those leaders.”

The university has also sought pilot state funding for a mentoring program for teachers, a program similar to one implemented by the University of Virginia that resulted in a significant reduction in teacher turnover rates.

Bowles sees an increasing trend in people combining several educational sources to attain a degree. They may start out at a community college or with distance learning and then enroll at the university. Bowles is reaching out to community college leaders, striving to establish seamless relationships that will smooth the way for students. In the past, “turf issues” have stood as obstacles in the way of collaboration between community colleges and universities. Bowles and his staff are knocking down those issues one by one.

In order to widen the pipeline of students interested in math and science, the university is seeking to expand such programs as “Summer Ventures in Science and Mathematics,” a program available on six campuses for academically talented students who may pursue careers based in math and science. “Saturday Academies” also provide intensive math, science, communications and career awareness training to children in underachieving counties. The university owns two DESTINY buses, mobile science classrooms filled with stimulating science and math activities. It plans to purchase at least one more in the near future.

“We’ve got to take a whole new view of K-12 education and it’s common sense that we have to attract the best and brightest to the most important job in the country: teaching,” Bowles says.

 

The Business Community’s Role

President Bowles urges the business community to get involved in encouraging public schools to step up to the plate. He wants business leaders to insist that elementary, middle and high schools, community colleges and universities get people excited about math and science education, that they improve public schools and work to attract the best teachers and principals. He says, “Our way of life depends on it.”

“We’ve got to get faster and better, and we’ve got to make smart investments in research and development,” Bowles insists. “We’ve got to make sure we’ve got the best talent running our schools and companies, because leadership is the name of the game.”

Many of the foregoing answers Bowles ascribes to “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.” This National Academies Press publication, written by the Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century, gives a full report with recommendations and states, “Without high-quality, knowledge-intensive jobs and the innovative enterprises that lead to discovery and new technology, our economy will suffer and our people will face a lower standard of living.”

Bowles continually meets with economic development, educational and business leaders and scientists in an effort to collaborate efforts toward this end.

“We’ve got to try to work in a more collaborative manner to produce more intellectual property, therefore attracting more venture capitalists down here to create more jobs,” Bowles explains.

“You look at what David Murdock is doing in Kannapolis. It’s going to be phenomenal. Not only are we going to have the equipment and scientists there, we’re going to have a $200 million venture capital pool to provide the capital that these smart people will need to create the jobs of the future.”

“In addition, we’ve got numerous marine scientists along the coast of North Carolina. And, did you know that we have more environmental scientists at Research Triangle Park than anywhere in the world? Many of the resources are there, but we’re not collaborating.”

Bowles believes that it is important in this process to find ways to reward the commercialization of intellectual property.

“That’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing,” he asserts. “If it generates revenue and new businesses, it can create the SAS Institute of tomorrow. N.C. State University does a better job of working with private industry than other universities in our system. I’d like to see other universities step up like N.C State does. Let’s focus on lean manufacturing, for example.”

Despite the adoption of lean manufacturing practices, Bowles is certain that America cannot compete on a cost basis in commodity-based businesses. A low-cost producer in America is not a low-cost producer globally, he asserts. American companies have to move up the value chain. Manufacturers have to make great investments in brands, so that retailers will want the product, and huge investments in logistics to control costs and get the products where they need to go.

A big part of staying competitive in a shrinking world is common sense, Bowles maintains. Investing in schools and other infrastructure, managing and controlling growth and making cities like Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro places where people want to settle down and raise their families, are essential. Attracting high-tech businesses is key, and that goes right back to making educational changes.

“Places like Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro are blessed with great leadership,” Bowles says. “Those leaders need to embrace their community colleges and universities. They’ve got to focus on improving K-12 education. We can do this if we get more people better educated and make the right kinds of investments. And I’m confident that we will.”

 

A Worldly Education

Bowles himself is a native North Carolinian, born and raised in Greensboro. His father, Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles, was an influential Democratic politician and businessman who served in the N.C. House of Representatives and Senate.

Bowles attained a business degree from UNC Chapel Hill, served briefly in the U.S. Coast Guard, and then earned his M.B.A. at Columbia Business School. He worked for financial firm Morgan Stanley in New York until the early ’70s, when he met and married Crandall Close (now the president and CEO of Springs Industries based in Fort Mill, S.C.), and moved back to North Carolina. Bowles launched the investment firm Bowles Hollowell Conner in 1975.

In 1992, he was approached by then-candidate Bill Clinton to work on his presidential campaign. When Clinton was elected, he invited Bowles to head up the Small Business Administration. In 1993, Clinton appointed him deputy White House chief of staff; in 1996, he was appointed chief of staff.

When asked what he brings to the table at the university from his experience at the White House Bowles responds with a chuckle: “I learned how to manage big projects – like the federal budget.”

His tenure as chief of staff taught Bowles how to deal with a legislative body and work with people in a non-partisan manner.

“I also learned how important it is to lead from the front,” he adds.

Bowles returned to his native state and the world of corporate finance in the fall of 1998. In 1999, Governor Jim Hunt appointed Bowles to chair the Rural Prosperity Task Force, a statewide panel that examined the economic challenges facing the state’s rural areas. Task force recommendations led to the creation of a $30 million private fund earmarked for regional high-speed Internet access and small business capital.

“Having grown up in urban North Carolina, heading the task force gave me a much more in-depth understanding of the needs of rural North Carolina,” Bowles says. “Any time you understand the needs of your customers you can do a better job, and our customers are the people of North Carolina.”

Although raised with a high regard for public service, Bowles prefers to operate out of the spotlight. Even as White House chief of staff, Bowles preferred to leverage his investment banking background working behind the scenes rather than devoting time to chatting on political talk shows. His pragmatic approach paid off in 1997, when he successfully negotiated the first balanced budget agreement in 30 years with Congressional Republicans.

North Carolina Democrats tapped Bowles to run for political office many times over the years, and each time he graciously declined. But after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Bowles chose to run for office. After two unsuccessful bids for the Senate, in 2002 against Republican Elizabeth Dole and in 2004 against Republican Richard Burr, Bowles looked for other avenues of public service.

“I realized after the second failed election that, while elected office was clearly not going to be for me, there were other ways to do my part,” Bowles explains. “Just a few months later I was called upon to work on tsunami relief and it was the most personally fulfilling work I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”

While Bowles was overseas, he got a call asking whether he’d be interested in replacing Molly Broad as University of North Carolina president. Ironically enough, he’d declined the job once before, while serving as chief of staff. This time, he jumped on it.

“I had no idea Molly was thinking about retiring, and it wasn’t even on my radar screen,” says Bowles. “This time I could say ‘Yes.’ It was the most wonderful opportunity I could imagine.”

“Bill Friday’s [UNC President from 1956-1986] been my life-long hero, and I’ve admired Dick Spangler [UNC President from1986-1997] for many years,” Bowles explains, as pictures of his smiling father, Friday and Spangler attest on the shelves behind his desk. “It’s one job in public service I’ve always admired.

“Growing up in North Carolina gives me an enormous advantage. I don’t have to develop an appreciation for North Carolina or for the university. I know this state and I know it well, and I care about it deeply. I understand completely the important role the university system plays in the growth of North Carolina and what role it has to play in the future of the state.”

Bowles is confident that the people of North Carolina can meet the global challenges ahead: “I’m optimistic about our ability to compete.”

“If we do what we need to do – invest in research and development, embrace educational institutions and demand changes, invest in infrastructure, invest in technology – if we can do that, we can compete with anybody.”

Lisa Hoffmann is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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