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Oct 1, 2009

How to save UNC

We are less than two years away from the financial cliff, created by convergence of the Colorado TABOR law and the recession. While the Feds have bailed us out this year and the next year, in the year 2010/11, we can lose $14 million of our $44 million, according to President Norton. This is not a time for gradual measures or slow change. We need to learn radical thinking very fast, so we have the time to prepare.

Here is how we can make up for lost state subsidies. The most disruptive competitive strategy is to cut the cost of your commodity or service. It allows stealing many customers from your competition. If we charge students only half of current tuition, a well-publicized campaign could recruit 8000 new freshmen and transfers, who would otherwise go to other universities. It would bring about $20 million dollars.

How can we add 8000 students to the campus that can barely accommodate 12000 students? When students come to campus, they pay for the college experience as much as they pay for actual teaching services. But this can be made an optional service. We will make a deal with a special category of students (let's call them riders): you get to pay only half of regular tuition, and get your degree, under one condition: you cannot come to classes. Dozens of regular on-campus students (let's say "cameramen" and "camerawomen") will be hired to take their regular classes with digital cameras, film every class, and then upload the films on a server on the same day. The riders will organize in groups, following one of these student workers, watch every class, do all the assignments, and participate in a limited way through the Blackboard. The riders would have to be self-directed learners, but their experience would not be much different from a regular on-campus student that does not say much in class. Our faculty won't have to deal with technology at all, but will be paid extra to grade the extra assignments and answer the riders' questions. Or they will be given a choice to hire an adjunct to help with those activities. This is not exactly on-line teaching, because faculty won't need to learn new skills or redesign their courses, but not exactly face-to-face experience either. It might actually be not only cheaper, but better than a typical on-line course. We learn from observing others as much as we learn from participating in activities. The "cameramen" would also act as peer advisers to their rider group, helping to figure out classes and homework, and maybe even film an occasional homecoming or a dorm party.

If we do something like that, there is no time for pilots, or trying it small scale. We need the economy of scale – developing and testing of technological solutions, financial arrangements, and practical procedures would be expensive. The cost can only be justified by going all the way right away. We cannot have several administrative groups and Senate committees studying the issue for a few month, and different units figuring out their parts. We'd need a direct and urgent conversation with the campus community; we need a wide-spread buy-in. We also need a coordinating center with a small team of faculty, administrators and IT types entirely dedicated to the project, with adequate resources. We need a leap of faith. There is no better time for innovation that a good crisis. No crisis should be wasted.

Do I want to be doing all this running around, planning, advertising, tweaking hundreds of classes, taking the risk without knowing if it is going to work? No, I don't. However, I also don't want to have a meeting about which colleague we are going to let go, which classes will have to double in size, and how many unpaid overloads we will are going to teach. You have to decide which of the two a lesser evil – working on something new is or firing friends?


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