This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 22 Number 1 1999. The copyright is by EDUCAUSE and the author(s). See for additional copyright information.

Preparing for a Very Different Future: An Interview with Molly Broad

Molly Broad Molly Corbett Broad, president of the sixteen-campus University of North Carolina System, presented a keynote address at the CAUSE98 conference in Seattle last December.1 CAUSE/EFFECT took this opportunity to ask President Broad a few questions about the role of information technology and advanced networking in the future of higher education, and some of the issues and challenges surrounding its widespread adoption.

Q What is your vision for higher education in the 21st century, and what are the opportunities and challenges presented by that vision?

In the context of the network age, I believe the vision for higher education contains one strategic issue above all others, and that is, what role will information technology and advanced networking play in the future of higher education? Why do I think it is arguably the most significant strategic issue? Because it is so pervasive in everything that we do and it is transforming what the academy is. It is pervasive in our teaching and learning, in our research and development and technology transfer. Itís pervasive in the transformation of our academic and student support services. It can contribute to making all aspects of the university better, from intellectual productivity to economic efficiency.

Q Increasing numbers of higher education leaders like yourself are convinced of that, but not all faculty would necessarily agree with what you just said and some are beginning to question the change. What do you think needs to happen for faculty to share this vision and embrace that future?

One thing that I am confident about in universities is that good ideas are very, very contagious. One of the models that I think about is the model of the physician, where there is a belief that starts in their education and training that the tools of technology will help them be more productive, to serve more patients, and to do a better job in serving patients. Thatís the model that needs to be translated for faculty members, and I think it is very achievable. It is the responsibility of leadership to provide the necessary training and support services for faculty to embrace technology; we canít ask them to do it all on their own. If we provide support services and training, it is my belief that we will quickly find faculty taking advantage of the enhancements that technology presents. Then the responsibility will be on our shoulders to make sure we have made adequate investments so that it is accessible.

Q What are the mechanisms that colleges and universities can use to finance those "adequate investments"?

That is a very tough question. If you look at American business, you find there has been a dramatic shift in the share of resources allocated for information technology, both in corporate operating budgets and in capital budgets. We are far, far behind. The way we have to invest is a combination of student participation, increased support from the state, uses of partnerships with business and industry, more effective creative financing strategies, and also reallocation of existing resources. We cannot achieve the necessary investment solely by add-ons. At some point those resources will have to come out of internal reallocations.

Q In your keynote address, you talked about the need to respond to changing student needs. It seems to me that this will mean changing campus culture to a certain extent. What do you think are the primary changes that need to occur, and what are some of the ways to encourage that kind of cultural change?

There are different kinds of changes in the campus culture. One part of it is what students bring to the campus when they come. Increasingly, we are going to find digital-literate students entering our campus and having high expectations for what we will provide for them. They will drive the changes in the culture. There are other aspects of the culture that we define. Those are sometimes more difficult. I think about the role of libraries, the heart of the university as we always describe it. Yet the digital revolution has really transformed all the ways in which faculty and students can gain access to the kinds of information that we think about securing from a library. How do librarians, in terms of their professional roles and in terms of the nature of the facility that we call the library, change in order to respond to the digital world?

Q You talk about "improving productivity" in higher education. What do you mean by that?

Productivity means something very different in higher education than in the rest of the sectors of our economy, where it means some increase in output, with a decrease in cost. Higher education really defines quality in a way that some organizations would define productivity. We find ourselves caught in a bind--if there is any decrease in cost, we define it as a decrease in quality. We certainly understand what I like to call intellectual productivity. That is where we can demonstrate improvements in the quality of the educational experience--the learning that results from the investment in faculty and equipment and various kinds of support. Intellectual productivity is a concept that is easier for us to grasp.

Q How do you respond to critics who say that there is a lack of empirical evidence that using technology in teaching and learning improves student learning?

I think thereís increasing evidence of that, so the quality of the research and scholarship is continuing to improve. But what I object to about the way some people ask that question is that they frame it as an "either/or." Information technology makes it possible for enhancement in the quality of research, and for the teaching and learning experience to be improved even in the most traditional of classroom settings. What works for one student doesnít work for another. We have to be cognizant that information technology makes it possible for us to reach students that we canít reach now as effectively through our traditional means. Students who wonít raise their hands in class to ask a question will sit at their computer with lots of time and formulate a question and send it to a faculty member as e-mail. We can achieve a kind of interaction between students and faculty using technology that isnít feasible for certain students in face-to-face interaction.

Q What do you think are the key policy issues that colleges and universities need to resolve for distributed learning environments to flourish?

Oh, let me count the ways! Surely we have a lot of issues around the technology itself. I believe the development of the intra-campus infrastructure is a critical ingredient for the campus and that the development of the inter-campus network is important for higher education in its entirety. In addition, there are many other issues that we have to grapple with, from pricing to transferability to where the degree is conferred. You heard some of the folks ask me after my presentation if the system should confer a degree. I think the answer is a resounding "no." We need to develop the kinds of policies that will make it possible for students transparently to pursue successfully a degree without our practices interfering with their progress. The policies also extend to how we integrate admissions, financial aid, registration, and all the range of student support services. In some ways established universities will learn from the experiences of the new start-up institutions, including those that are "for profit" institutions, because they arenít hung up with the preexisting policy framework or apparatus and they may see a new route that delivers the shortest distance between two points. We will learn from that.

Q Providing convenient and affordable computing and network access to all students any time from almost any place seems to be critical if digital technologies are to become an integral part of the delivery of higher education. Itís difficult enough for a single institution to achieve that, but what do you think is the role of a system like UNC in this area? Is it policy or direction setting? Is it just encouragement?

Thatís a very good question. First of all, I believe that the goal of providing twenty-four-hour access for all students and all faculty to the rich array of resources that are increasingly available over networks is the right focus and the right goal. First, what systems can do is help each campus build a master plan for its own infrastructure needs and provide means for financing the investment in their own campus infrastructure. Second, I think the system has a responsibility in trying to facilitate the inter-campus network development, so that we have facilitated the accessibility from the edge of the campus. I believe systems can provide funding support, a framework of criteria, and exemplars of best practice for building campus-specific plans for how technology will be utilized in the teaching and learning process, in academic and administrative support services, in the research mission. The nature of those campus plans would be very different from one campus to another. I donít think a cookie-cutter approach is the right way to go, but there are some central criteria and goals that a system can help to frame. Then if the resources are allocated to the plans that are deemed to be the best plans by some independent peer review approach, we can go a long way to assisting each campus in developing its own plans for how technology can best be used given their mission, their geography, the needs of their region, and so forth.

Q What do you think of student computer ownership requirements and student technology fees? Are those part of the mechanisms that can make some of this happen?

I think we need to be really careful about technology fees. There is a great temptation to shift onto the shoulders of the student a significant part of the cost of the technology as an important and critical addition to the teaching and learning process. That is a great mistake. That is not to say that students shouldnít bear some part of the cost. Itís inappropriate for us to view technology fees as a major source of revenue to support the investments in technology, either in the operating budget or in the capital budget. If you believe, as I believe, that the goal is to provide students and faculty members with twenty-four-hour access, then it means that each student needs to have in his or her possession a piece of equipment that will make that possible. The great advantage for the institution of each student having his or her own piece of equipment is that the matters and concerns of the updating and replacing and obsolescence are diminished. The student has the benefit of utilizing that piece of equipment for all the various uses. Increasingly, we see those computers as serving us in many aspects of our life, not just for the courses we are taking at the moment. I am a person who sees great advantages in making it possible for all students to have access at as low a cost as possible to their own piece of equipment that will then be a part of their tool kit for their university experience. The key is that we try to take advantage and leverage our position in the marketplace to get the lowest cost, that we include in our financial aid eligibility what those costs are and do our best to make it possible for students who need financial aid to get those things covered through their aid packages, and that if students canít afford it, we serve as intermediaries to make it possible through loans and other techniques for every student to have the same kind of access.

Q There is a great deal of individualism in the way faculty approach the teaching of their courses. Do you see that as an obstacle to establishing standards such as those that the Instructional Management System (IMS) project of the NLII has been promoting?

My initial reaction to that question is that we have made so much progress so rapidly in higher education because of our ability to agree upon standards and protocols. It has opened up amazing new doors of opportunity. Those standards and protocols were developed by bringing together the best minds in higher education. Now those are technical standards and technical protocols. But it seems to me that they are very much transferable to the Instructional Management System and that agreeing upon those standards in no way constrains the intellectual content of what a faculty member does, but opens up a full range of possibilities, including publishers and other private organizations being willing to invest their resources because there is a standard.

Q We have read a great deal about the shortage of information technology professionals in the workplace and the expectation that this crisis will continue because there arenít enough future workers in the pipeline. Do you think curriculum changes are in order in higher education?

I am impressed with those universities that have added to the range of educational alternatives for students by creating new blends between computer science and business, providing degree programs, real degree program opportunities that blend the kinds of skills that are so in need by American industry. Yes, I do believe that we need to transform the curriculum, as I do believe that community colleges and Web-based offerings can all contribute to addressing the shortage that we face in workers with essential information technology skills. Our failure to step up to that issue will inevitably lead American corporations to establish operations in parts of the world where there are talent pools in the quantity and quality that they need in order for them to be successful.


1 Molly Broadís presentation was Webcast from CAUSE98 and is now available as a RealVideo Webcast on the EDUCAUSE Web site (

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