In a stunning move last January, the University of North Carolina’s increasingly conservative board of governors requested Tom Ross’s resignation as system president. The board insisted the popular Ross had “served with distinction” and done an “exemplary” job since he was hired in 2010. It provided no reason for his dismissal beyond the need for a “leadership transition.”

The decision was widely panned as politicalespecially when, a month later, the board abolished three university-based centers, most notably Gene Nichol’s Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity.

In Ross’s place, the board hired Margaret Spellings, George W. Bush’s former secretary of education, whose position started March 1. She’s already come under fire from UNC students and faculty for her involvement with for-profit colleges and student debt-collection services, her references to students as “customers,” and past homophobic views. Meanwhile, Governor McCrory and the legislature have been advocating for a university system aimed overtly at getting students jobs upon graduation, not learning for learning’s sake. Academics in the UNC system have voiced concerns about the direction of higher education in the state.

Ross is now across the Triangle at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, and he remains a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government. Last month, the INDY sat down with Ross to ask his thoughts on his years at UNC, his current work on redistricting reform, and why the United States may soon no longer have the world’s top economy.

INDY: First of all: what are you doing now?

Tom Ross: I’m the Sanford Distinguished Fellow of Public Policy at Duke, and I’m there a couple days a week, working on a variety of different matters. They’ve asked me to participate in a leadership forum for people in North Carolina that are focused on the public policy arena. But, also, I’m looking at independent redistricting commissions around the country to see where those are working, how they’re set up, how they’re structured, what are the rules they use in drawing districts. To me, changing the way we do districting is really important to democracy.

Just recently in North Carolina, a couple of congressional districts were declared unconstitutional. Does that add urgency to your work?

Well, I don’t know that it adds urgency, because I think that those issues will be resolved well before the legislature could take action to create a commission. [Editor’s note: after this interview, the legislature redrew the map.] So I’m thinking about this more long term, because I think that we have to solve this problem not just in North Carolina but around the country, so that we can help restore people’s confidence in democracy and in our elective process.

Switching gears: While you were at UNC, did you have any particular focuses?

We went through a strategic planning process and adopted a comprehensive plan in early 2013, and it was focused in five particular areas. One of them was trying to increase the level of educational attainment in North Carolina, because I think all the evidence is the jobs of the future are going to require higher levels of education than they have in the past. And North Carolina is barely in the middle of the pack in terms of educational attainment compared to other states. We also had a major goal of focusing on academic quality, to ensure that the degrees we were awarding were of high quality. We were focused on working with the state to increase research in key areas to help build the economy, because the universities have a long, historic role of helping the state with its economic development. We looked at efficiency. And during my tenure, we reduced the cost of a degree by a substantial amount, about fifteen percent, and we increased the number of degrees that we were producing by eighteen percent.

What direction do you see the UNC system headed in now?

Well, I don’t really know what the direction is going to be. Some of the comments that [Spellings] made publicly at the retreat of the board [recently] were very positive comments about being sure to continue to focus on access and affordability. You know, I don’t know yet where things will head. I know that if you look around the country, there are some trends that are positive, and some trends that are really concerning, and I think we’ll just have to see how it unfolds.

It seems there’s less money coming into state school systems, which increases the pressure on everyone.

There’s no question that’s the case, but that’s not a recent trend. You go back twenty-five years, and you look at what we were spending in real dollars compared to now: we’re spending two percent more now than we were spending, but our enrollment has increased by sixty percent. So we’re actually spending about thirty percent less per student across the country on higher education than we did twenty-five years ago. This has been a long-term trend, and I think it is of great concern. I think we’re losing ground as a country, and I think we’ve got to pay attention or we’re going to find ourselves no longer with the world’s top economy.

Is that shortfall then made up by tuition increases?

That’s exactly what has happened. In North Carolina, for example, you go back to 2008, there’s been basically a ten percent shift. If my memory’s right: in 2008, seventy-two percent of the cost of a student’s education was paid by the state, twenty-eight percent by the students; it’s now sixty-two percent by the state, thirty-eight percent by the students.

The board of governors has been focusing on return on investment. Do you get the sense that that leads to curricular changes, thinking about higher education that way?

I think the first thing that one needs to do is look at the economic-impact analysis we had done last year. What you see is that the university, just the public university, amounts to six-point-four percent of the state’s GDP, so it’s a significant part of the economy. But you also see that for the investment the state makes, the return on investment is quite significant. The university brings in over one-point-two billion dollars in research funding, which creates jobs in North Carolina. And you look, for example, at the cancer fund, the state’s investment in the cancer fund is returned fivefold in outside funding. And that doesn’t even take into account the discoveries that are made, and that life-changing new ideas and new products come out of research that’s done in the university.

But, in addition to that, there’s a lot of evidence that the more educated your populationthere’s a lot of collateral benefits. Things like better health outcomes, lower obesity, and lower smoking rates among people that are higher educated, and that saves the state money. There’s less correctional costs, fewer people committing crimes that are higher educated. There is less use of welfare for people that are higher educated. So there are a lot of benefits to the state that aren’t even really counted in that economic-impact analysis.

Governor McCrory has said that the state shouldn’t be subsidizing courses in Swahili and gender studies because they’re less likely to lead to jobs. It has me wondering about the place of a broad, liberal arts-style education in the state system.

Well, I think that increasingly people understand that the role of the university, as I often put it, is to prepare people for their last job, not their first. And what I mean by that is we’re preparing people for lifelong learning and to be flexible and adaptable in a changing economy. The [U.S.] Department of Labor recently put out a study that [showed that] people who are now in high school or younger, sixty percent of the jobs that they will hold haven’t even been invented yet. And we know that broad-based education is important in creating the kind of graduate that can communicate well and can think critically. At the same time, I think that kind of education is really important to help people think in an interdisciplinary way, because the worldthe problems we’re facing are not field-specific.

There’s been a lot written recently about how higher education in North Carolina is being influenced by political ideology. Would you say that is happening?

I think that universities have historically been seen as nonpartisan. It’s important that they continue to be that way. What people’s perceptions are now, it’s hard for me to comment on what other people might perceive. I think one of the biggest risks to universities, in terms of their reputation and their ability to be successful in the role that they’re supposed to play in society, is if they do become political institutions.

Last question: What would you say is the purpose of higher education?

I think we have, as a public university, a very clear mission. Part of that is teaching and learning, where we’re trying to prepare students for their life. And that means creating students and graduates who can communicate well, who can think critically, who can understand and use data to solve problems, who can work in teams, who can live and work in a diverse global economy. Another part of our mission is researchit is the place where new ideas are born and where discoveries are made that can change human lives. And then the third role, clearly part of the mission, is public service.

In terms of what’s important to the individual, the economic preparation for work is one component. I think there are other components of education. I think it’s fair to say that people who have the benefit of higher education oftentimes are in a position to understand and appreciate what’s going on in the world in some ways that maybe others can’t. They’re more likely to vote. They’re more likely to participate in the democracy. They’re more likely to be leaders. And I think that’s part of the role of education.

Almost to help people become their best selves.

Yeah, I think that’s a good way to put it. But alsonot only their best selves, but to put them in a position to thrive both economically and as human beings, and to help their community and their state thrive.