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Home >> Sci-Edu
UPDATED: 14:05, November 07, 2006
Interview with UNC Chancellor James Moeser
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Xing Zong, of Duke University Chinese Students and Scholar Association (DCSSA), recently had an interview with UNC Chancellor James Moeser.

About Dr. James Moeser

Dr. James Moeser has been chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the leading research universities in the United States, since 2000. He will visit Beijing in mid-December as part of UNC's collaboration with Peking University to convene a joint conference, "Harmonious Development and Reaching Health for All," focusing on health-care reform in China. Moeser's visit will follow a trip to Chapel Hill in November by Dr. Min Weifang, executive vice president and chairman of the University Council of Peking University and currently a visiting professor at Columbia University's Center on Chinese Education in New York City.

A concert organist, Moeser began his career in 1966 at the University of Kansas, where he was dean of the School of Fine Arts. At the Pennsylvania State University, he was dean of the College of Arts and Architecture and executive director of University Arts Services. He also served as vice president for academic affairs and provost of the University of South Carolina and as chancellor of the University of Nebraska before coming to UNC.

Dr. James Moeser (L) and Xing Zong

Z: Dr. Moeser, you are a concert organist. As far as I know, another top administrator in American higher education who also holds a degree in music is Don Michael Randel, the previous president at the University of Chicago. So I will begin my interview by asking the following question: How do you connect your background in music with your administrative role?

M: Your analysis is correct. I think it is relatively rare for a musician to have an office like this, but not unprecedented. I could name several more musicians who have become university presidents. I did not start out to be a college administrator. That was never my goal. I was trained as a musician, as a concert organist and as a church musician. I wanted to teach organ in a university. Like many other academicians, my goal really was a career in the university without any thought of doing administration.

These things kind of happened fortuitously and almost by accident. But the more I did administration the more I discovered that I enjoyed it. I also like leadership, so I have been able to have a variety of different careers. People ask me, "Don't you miss what you used to do?" My answer is, "Of course, I miss it. I also enjoy what I'm doing now. I don't have a sense of loss. I get real satisfaction out of doing this job." In one sense, given the public aspects of being a university president, I am still a performer because I make many public presentations, and I enjoy public speaking. So there are ways for me to exercise my creativity as an administrator as opposed to what I was trained to do.

I have a secret theory that musicians use the right side of the brain as well as the left side of the brain, and, in some cases, are more balanced than people who only use the left side of the brain. That's my own personal bias.

Z: Just curious, do you find you are effective in communicating with academicians in other fields, say economists or physicists?

M: Sure. I think I am a pretty well-read person. I think I have very catholic interests, very broad interests. I am the first to admit when I don't understand something. My previous provost, Robert Shelton, was a physicist like you. I chose a science person to be the provost because that's the area of the university that I knew least about. Now my provost, Bernadette Gray-Little, is a psychologist, and she brings a similar perspective from the social sciences, which are also very strong here. I surround myself with people who have expertise and knowledge that I don't have. I think that's important.

Z: UNC is the nation's oldest public university. It is always among America's top five "public Ivies," along with UC-Berkeley, UCLA, the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan. To build a world-class university, I think students, faculty and funding play the key roles. So let's talk about the American public university system. What is the main source of funding?

M: Unlike a private university, we get major support from the State of North Carolina -- about $450 million dollars this year. If we were a private university, it would take an endowment of $8.5 billion to spin off the $450 million that the state provides us. That represents roughly 20 percent of our total operating budget, about $2.2 billion.

The largest stream of revenue in Chapel Hill is peer-reviewed faculty research, which now generates almost $600 million in contracts and grants. When American universities, or even international universities, compete with one another, where they come in the pecking order is reflected in their level of research funding. That's a real measure of our power as a university because those funds are awarded on a competitive basis based on review by their peers in the field. Our physicists have to go head to head with physicists at Duke or Stanford or Berkeley to secure those grants. So it's that competition that is part of the measure of quality of a public or private university.

So I've told you where roughly $1 billion of our budget comes from. The rest is from private fund raising, and our $2 billion Carolina First Campaign, or from revenue that we generate from our own sources, such as in clinics from patients served by the UNC Health Care System, or by student tuition and fees. All of that adds up. It's a complicated picture.

Z: It seems to me that the public school also has a variety of funding resources. This is just like "Don't put all your eggs in one basket." What is the percentage of student tuition?

M: Tuition and fees together represent approximately 9 percent of our total operating revenue.

Z: For the second aspect, how does public universities compete with private universities such as Harvard, Yale or Duke for top faculty?

M: Well, obviously, you have to start with salaries. We have to pay competitive salaries. The better university you are, the more attractive you will be to prospective faculty. People want to go to centers of excellence and quality. They want high-quality colleagues. They want to be in a department that is already highly regarded. They want to know that they are going to get to work with good graduate students and good undergraduate students. They want to know that we are going to provide them with the facilities they need, whether it is a laboratory or a library. So salary, quality of the faculty, quality of the students and the quality of the facilities.

I think a big plus for us is the quality of life in this region. The Research Triangle in North Carolina is one of the most attractive, affordable places to live in the United States. For example, I was talking recently with a faculty member that we recruited from another university to one of our major research groups in medicine. He was looking at three areas: Harvard and MIT; the San Francisco Bay area, Stanford and Berkeley; or the Research Triangle. He said he could have gone to any of these three places, but he was bringing about 20 people -- technicians, graduate students and young faculty -- with him. The Triangle won because his people couldn't afford the (San Francisco) Bay or Cambridge because of the grossly high cost of living in those places. So you factor in affordable cost of living plus a very attractive climate and good schools if people have children -- all of these factors and intangibles are recruiting edges that we have. We play everyone one of those cards when we try to recruit faculty.

Z: Also, a great basketball team.

M: Yes, great basketball. That's right.

Z: Currently all American major universities put an emphasis on campus diversity, and I guess UNC is no exception. But UNC also has an obligation to serve North Carolina citizens, which means most undergraduate students come from North Carolina. How do you balance the in-state and out-of-state ratio in order to meet both goals?

M: It is a tension we have, no question. We are mandated by (the University of North Carolina System) Board of Governors policy to keep that roughly 80-20 ratio of our students from North Carolina. But that only regulates first-year undergraduates, so our graduate programs, are, in some cases, as much as 65 percent non-residents. It varies by program. By and large, our graduate students come from all over the world. Most graduate students, when they come to UNC, can become residents after they are here for one year. So they can qualify later for in-state tuition.

Z: Are the admission criteria different for in-state and out-of-state students?

M: The admission standards, I think, are more difficult for undergraduate non-residents than for the residents. It is just because of the mathematics of the applicant pool. There are roughly 20,000 applications. About 11,000 are from outside the state. Those 11,000 applicants have to crowd into something like 800 or 900 places because of the out-of-state cap. We are talking about undergraduates. So the competition on the non-resident side is extremely intense. Chapel Hill is one of the most highly selective universities in the United States. We are more selective than many privates, possibly more selective than Duke, when it comes to non-resident students because of the limitation on the number we can accept.

Z: How many first-year students did UNC accept this year?

M: This year, we admitted about 3,800 freshmen.

Z: Chinese college students often feel that the knowledge learned from school is hardly applicable to the real world, while most useful knowledge is learned after they take jobs. What is your comment on this? How does UNC prepare students for their careers?

M: I am glad that you ask that, and I feel very strongly about that. I think it is one of the strengths of American higher education compared with higher education in other parts of the world, which, I think, is much more technically oriented. If I were going to say there was a weakness in the Chinese system, I think that's what it is.

There is real merit to what we do in America for undergraduates, putting a very heavy emphasis on a base in the liberal arts and science. I like to say this to our students, "The difference between a great university and a trade school is that the trade school trains you for your first job. A great university educates you for your last job." Catch the difference? What we are teaching in these great liberal arts colleges and universities in America is a foundation in critical thinking, how to become a learned person to serve you for your whole life rather than teaching just skills and a trade. There is a value in the former; that's what community colleges and training schools do. But that's not a great university education. A great university education, especially in the 21st Century, gives you the tools to think and to learn critically, and to learn independently, because your learning is not finished when you graduate. It's going to follow you through all of your life. Think how fast knowledge is changing. You can't cram all that knowledge into a person, but we can give you the skills to continue to learn.

Z: Besides teaching knowledge, another obligation that university has to fulfill is the moral education. But many universities neglect the importance. This potentially could have very serious consequences. What does UNC do to address this issue?

M: I would like to think that UNC is one of those places with a strong moral center. We have a very strong honor code. We have zero tolerance at this university for academic dishonesty. Students administer our Honor Court themselves. The punishment for academic dishonesty, if they are convicted, is suspension. You are out. I don't think we are harshly punitive. Today an appeal of a student came across my desk that was denied. This student was appealing his suspension from the Honor Court for academic dishonesty. Our expectation from the very beginning is that you will be honest in your work, that you are going to present only your work, not someone else's work as yours. This is really challenging when so much is available on the Internet and students can buy papers. I think it is really core to our values as a university. And to your point, I think we have a responsibility as a university to teach values as well as just knowledge. Character formation is part of the role of the university, not to dictate what student values are, but to make sure that if they have a value system they follow it.

Z: Many professors inside the ivory tower start their own companies. This will surely facilitate the transition process from lab research to industrial application. However, it is also possible that the professors don't dedicate to their teaching duties anymore. How can UNC balance these kinds of relationships between faculty and the companies they start?

M: We like to say that we are a very entrepreneurial university. We have a major grant from the (Ewing Marion) Kauffman Foundation to be one of seven "Entrepreneurial Universities," chosen through a national competition. The fastest-growing minor in the College of Arts and Sciences, which teaches our undergraduates, is in entrepreneurship. There are three tracks. These include one you would normally think of -- a traditional business setting related to science-oriented high-tech oriented spin-offs. There is also a track that we call social entrepreneurship, which connects to the major commitment that this university has for public service, for students who want to use their commitment to public service in the non-profit sector. There is a third track, which appeals to me as a musician, in artistic entrepreneurship, so people in music, visual arts, graphic arts, theatre, they can also develop business skills. It's a way for a young musician in America to be self-supporting while they are also using their musician skills in a business setting. That's the student piece of this.

To your point about faculty involvement, we encourage our faculty to create companies and spin off their research. It is an important role that the university plays in helping drive the economy of the United States. We are creating these gazelle companies. It's important especially for North Carolina, which has, as the world's economy has globalized, lost many furniture and textile jobs. I'm convinced the future economy will be a knowledge-based economy that's built on the idea of entrepreneurship.

But the issue you raised is also a very serious one. What you are really are describing is the potential for conflict of interest between a faculty member who has a company and meeting his responsibilities in the classroom. We do have policies that govern the financial rewards that a faculty member can earn from the sale of his intellectual property or through licensing fees to another company. The university also benefits from that because we get licensing revenue from that relationship, too. We also have policies to make sure that faculty members do not neglect students. That is a danger. We have to recognize that, but I think we stay on top of that issue.

Z: You have launched the Carolina Covenant, a groundbreaking initiative to make a UNC education possible debt-free for low-income students. Right now one big burden on many Chinese families is the college tuition. Maybe you can introduce this program to us.

M: The Carolina Covenant says that if you get admitted into Carolina as an undergraduate student, and if you come from a very needy family, we can help. We define a very needy family based on criteria set by the United States government -- 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is roughly in America an annual income of about $40,000 for a family of four. If you are willing to work eight to 10 hours a week in a campus office in a federal work-study job, you can graduate from UNC in four years without ever having to take out a loan. So these students have no debt. Beyond that, we meet 100 percent of the financial aid on this campus for any student who qualifies under the federal guidelines. We are one of the few universities in the country that can say that.

Z: But there is a possible dilemma: many universities need tuition fees as the main source of their revenues. What happens at your university?

M: What we have done here is that every time we raise tuition, we set aside about 35 percent of the new monies created by that tuition increase for the need-based scholarship fund. We basically held harmless the impact of those tuition increases on needy students. Their tuition has not gone up, while it has for everyone else. What we have done is very similar to what a private university in America does, which is to discount the price based on the ability to pay.

Z: Statistics are always convincing. So people like to look at university rankings. Take UNC as an example, the School of Information and Library Science is number one in U.S. News & World Report magazine's most recent graduate school rankings. Chancellor Moeser, in your view, what is the real value of such rankings? Are they the most important thing for the university?

M: I think a lot of people pay attention to the rankings. You mentioned library science. I would mention public health. I would also mention journalism, which is number one according to its accrediting agency. We know what our rankings are for each of our health schools in National Institutes of Health research funding. I think those are really valid metrics.

The U.S. News and World Report ranking, on the other hand, a lot of people in this country pay attention to it. A huge portion of that ranking is a survey that I fill out every year. It's based on what I think and what other presidents think about the reputation of a bunch of other schools. Quite candidly, we benefit from having a very strong reputation. I'm not sure it's really a valid measure. Michigan has a high reputation. Berkeley has a great reputation. I know a lot of things about Berkeley. I really believe it's probably that high, but that's just my belief. I don't have any empirical knowledge that Berkeley is better than UCLA, to mention two great California universities. I couldn't make that distinction. Somehow U.S. News manages to make that kind of fine granular distinction.

I will tell you about a better ranking system, in my opinion, which is done by the Lombardi Program on Measuring University Performance at the University of Florida. That evaluation of America's research universities is based on nine different metrics. It's much more scientific. And the results are very similar to U.S. News. It's top four or five public universities are the same ones: Berkeley, Michigan, UCLA, North Carolina and Virginia. But this study doesn't distinguish among those top five. They are simply put in an upper band, and then it continues to another band. And you know what the metrics are, and they are a little more relevant to research universities than U.S. News & World Report. But the fact is that a lot of people pay attention to U.S. News, and we do, too. They measure some things that are important -- class size, for example.

Z: Do you ever consider taking steps in the short term to influence the rankings?

M: I don't think we have made a single decision here based on influencing the short-term rankings. Not a one. In fact, it would be a shame on us if we ever did. I think that's a fault in American capitalism. Most CEOs are too focused on quarterly reports. That's why there is not enough R&D (research and development) in American enterprise today. I think we do take the long view here, which is the high road and, I think, the right road.

Z: One thing worth mentioning is that UNC has many distinguished alumni. Perhaps the best known is Michael Jordan. If asked to name the five greatest alumni who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, who would you like to mention and why?

M: Of course, people always start with Michael Jordan. I don't mind using Michael Jordan. He is a great alumnus, and, probably more than anyone else symbolizes UNC around the world. He is sort of an icon. If I were going to stay in athletics, then I would mention right behind him Mia Hamm, the great soccer player.

You might be too young to know of him, but Charles Kuralt, a great TV journalist on CBS, might come next. Also Julian Robertson, a major hedge fund financier who founded the Robertson Scholars Program at Carolina and Duke. William Harrison is the chairman and chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co. Francis Collins is a geneticist and director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. He was here a couple of weeks ago. He is a wonderful person, and I am proud that he is an alumnus of this university.

Z: I did some research about UNC before this interview, so I happened to know that UNC's alumni also include the 11th President of the United States.

M: That's right. James K. Polk. He is not generally regarded as a great president. But he was the president during one of the largest expansions of the American land mass, right behind (Thomas) Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase. Polk fought in the Mexican War. He annexed Texas.

Z: UNC has a rich sports tradition. Basketball program is very well known in China, and your alumni include NBA stars like Michael Jordan, Vince Carter and Coach Larry Brown. It is very interesting to observe that (Head Basketball) Coach Roy Williams earn much more money than a university president. Why?

M: You just said it. People in China know who Roy Williams is, but people in China don't know me. People in China know who Dean Smith is (the former UNC head basketball coach) or who (Duke Basketball Coach) Mike Krzyzewski is. Because of the impact of television and sports as sort of mega-entertainment, these are major American figures. These are world figures. For us, they become part of our brand image. That's why the first person I mentioned was Michael Jordan. In terms of all the people, if they think about UNC, and they see our logo in China, or in India or in Africa, typically you show them the NC logo and they'll say, "Michael Jordan." They make that connection.

Z: What kind of role does athletics play in the university?

M: Athletics is a huge part of our public identity. We are proud here to do it well with the quality of performance, but also to do it with an emphasis on the right kind of values. Not breaking the rules, no citations from the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletics Association), graduating our students with very high graduation rates and even having a leadership academy for our student-athletes. They graduate with leadership skills, as well as athletic skills. It's a point of pride for us to do it well.

Z: Now my interview comes to the third part, which covers UNC's international outreach. The internationalization of the university would include three parts. First is global health care, second is students studying abroad, and the third is the collaboration with other major international universities, including those in China. Can you introduce to us what UNC has done in these three aspects?

M: Next spring we are dedicating the FedEx Global Education Center, which is going to be the first building of its kind in America housing under one roof all of our area studies programs, all of our study abroad offices. Our foreign scholars who come to UNC will have offices in that building. The international student center will be in that building. Both incoming and outgoing aspects of our program will be there.

Next May, we will dedicate our new European Study Center in London. We bought a fabulous building in London very near the British Museum. That will be a base for the Honors Program's operations not only in the U.K, but also in Western Europe.

This next year we will start a joint undergraduate degree program in five areas with the National University of Singapore. They are history, political science, English, geography and economics. This is the first time an American university has literally done a joint degree. These students will have our seal and the National University of Singapore seal on their diplomas.

We have the UNC Semester in China at Xiamen University, which just began this fall. In the Kenan-Flagler Business School, there is a One MBA program that has residency components in Shanghai. The Carolina Entrepreneurial Initiative has summer internships in Beijing.

In the research arena, the Joint Center for Logistics and Digital Strategy between the Kenan-Flagler Business School and Tsinghua University in Beijing is collaborating on Olympics logistics. They have about 25 people from Beijing coming to the Atlanta airport to study airport security in connection with Olympic crowds.

Michael Cohen and Gail Henderson from the School of Medicine are heavily involved in AIDS research in China. Their work includes collaboration with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and the National Center for HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control on ethics workshops. Dr. Cohen is our principal researcher in infectious diseases.

The Carolina Population Center is doing research on the China Health Nutrition Survey. That's a report that goes all the way back to the 1980s. They have done in-depth surveys in over 200 communities and 17,000 individuals in nine provinces.

A new National Institutes of Health grant will focus on a joint training program in combination with Peking University -- particularly its new Health Economics Department -- and the Chinese Center for Disease Control promoting promoting physical activity in China.

Finally, UNC's Yue Xiong of the Lineberger Cancer Center supervises a research laboratory at the Institutes of Biomedical Science at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Z: So China is very important in UNC's internationalization efforts.

M: China is one of the two or three most important countries that we have opportunities to work with. If I were to put them on the map I would say the United Kingdom, China and India are the big three in terms our international relationships.

Z: Academic collaborations will always contribute to the relationships between two countries.

M: Academic interchange and economic intercourse between countries is the most important way of having peaceful relationships. As China was once America's principal rival in the world, now China can become America's collaborator. Tom Friedman (a The New York Times columnist and author) says that no two countries that both have McDonald's every went to war against each other, which is a simplistic way of saying to the extent that we become mutually interdependent on one other we have to find ways to work together. I think that it is really important. America's relationship with China could be our single most important relationship in the whole world.

Z: There are approximately 600 Chinese students on beautiful UNC campus. Due to language differences and cultural barriers, some international students have difficulty adapting to the American culture. Most of the time, they say they have their own narrow social communities. How does UNC help international students fit in on campus?

M; I don't have a good answer to that because I don't really know how well we have done. My hope is that this new Global Education Center will help us because we will be able to bring people together, including the Asia Center, now located at a temporary site, and our scholars and our students -- not just those from China, but those from other parts of the world as well -- and the Americans who are engaged in these international enterprises. We will be able to physically co-locate all of these things under one roof in what I hope will be almost kind of a United Nation on this campus, it will be a much better and exciting physical framework for this kind of interaction. It will make all of our foreign students feel more integrated into the culture of this campus. I am sure adapting to American culture is a big challenge.

Z: Last question, you have met many Chinese students on campus. What's your general impression of them? What is your ambition to attract more Chinese students?

M: I am always impressed with the intelligence and the work ethic of Chinese students. I think it's among the best. If there is a weakness, I think Chinese education is too narrowly focused and not broad enough. It is highly rigorous but it's very laser-sharply focused. I think Chinese education would benefit from a broader, more integrated approach to learning. That's one of the benefits that the Chinese have in coming to the West. That's where the cultures may benefit us both. Chinese bring tremendous discipline and focus, and we need some of that here. I think they benefit from the breadth that comes out of the more European approach to learning.

To attract more Chinese student is one of the reasons I'm going to China. We need to go and wave our flag in China so that there is better knowledge about UNC. We want more of these really bright students. Woody Allen (the actor) has a great saying: Ninety percent of success is just showing up. So I am going to show up. The other thing is word of mouth. As more students come and more faculties come, more people will realize -- and the more people we can send to China to go to Chinese universities. It needs to be a two-way street.

By Xing Zong, of Duke University Chinese Students and Scholar Association
Mr. McFarland from UNC news offices also made contribution to this interview.

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