Chancellor Mary K. Grant: UNCA Prepares Its Students For The Future

Several months ago I read a compelling article about the future of work given the rapid changes in technology we are experiencing (especially robotics and AI). I wondered how UNC Asheville is focusing its curriculum to support students as they prepare for moving from college into the workforce. Chancellor Mary K. Grant was able to give me some of her valuable time. What follows is the intriguing conversation we had.

UNCA Chancellor Mary K. Grant

UNCA Chancellor Mary K. Grant


There are about 3,900 students from 37 states and 28 countries, UNC Asheville is one of the nation’s top public Liberal Arts universities and one of the 17 institutions in the University of North Carolina system. UNC Asheville offers more than 30 majors leading to the Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees. UNC Asheville also awards a Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

What is the role of a University such as UNCA in educating students for the world and work of the future?

“This is a very timely question and we’re thinking about it a lot; there are a lot of moving pieces in the economy right now, both globally and nationally. I firmly believe a Liberal Arts education is the education that is going to prepare our students to navigate those waters.”

Chancellor Grant went on to give a salient example: “Let’s say you are working with Big Data; lots of conversations online about that. The work we do with our students is to set Data in context and understand the background, the history, not just a pile of numbers. I think a Liberal Arts education will give students the highest degree of flexibility and opportunity.”


“We have programs on campus in computer science where they are learning everything from coding to how to use sophisticated technology to tell the history of an area. We’re doing this work in an interdisciplinary fashion that I’m just so excited about. We have a team of faculty and students who are teaming up across computer science, mechatronics (an engineering program), and our art department. From those three disciplines, project teams work on addressing a problem. Last semester students were working to develop tools or devices or equipment to help assist people with disabilities.

“One exciting project: they worked on a cane, a mobility object. They looked at what are the functional things someone who is using a cane has to pay attention to; then what are the aesthetic things rather than a boring old cane—what will also make it beautiful and elegant to the eye; then how do you use 3D printers to print it. This team came together and created this cane that was a staff, but then the foot was a cast eagle talon! So, imagine you’re using that cane but people are now not talking about your disability but about this beautiful art.

The students talked about how much they learned from each other; realized the ways they each approach a problem and that their combined efforts had a much better result than compartmentalized thinking. The skills that will help students be successful in this fast-changing economy include working as part of a team and learning to chase down an answer.”


“The other way we’re working with students to be sure they’re ready when they leave here is undergraduate research done in a very professional way. Skills include writing, clearly communicating ideas, taking a theory to practice. Then they do a presentation, answer questions, defend their idea. They also have an opportunity to publish alongside a faculty member which gets them ready for grad school.”


“UNCA is part of a consortium of liberal arts schools, one of 29 schools across the country. We have a grant to do distance mentoring, so we may have a faculty member on this campus with a particular expertise who is working with a student on one of these other campuses. It’s not good enough to just know how to turn on a piece of equipment, you have to know how to use it effectively; to be critical and understand where the info is coming from… and faculty work very deeply with students to be sure they are good consumers, good analyzers and critics of information.

People often don’t think of Science in a Liberal Arts school but it’s actually one of our great strengths. It’s false that there is a separation between Liberal Arts and Science education; in fact we just got a $1.5 million five-year grant from the North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation that will help pay for scholarships and stipends for students in the biology and chemistry programs.

Another way we are preparing a wide variety of students for this fast-changing economy is through Distance Learning. We have to be looking at how technology can make access to education a bit more convenient. I did a lot of work with distance education when I was back in Massachusetts and one thing that works really well is a hybrid where you are in a classroom and also have the opportunity to work from home at your own pace. Connecting back and forth is important. In some programs faculty connect with other partners internationally. So they are bridging the cultural divide as well.”

Chancellor Grant visiting with attendees at a campus picnic.

Chancellor Grank visiting with attendees
at a campus picnic.


“In thinking about the growth of the institution over time we are wrapping up a strategic planning process looking at what forms of pedagogy we need to be doing and how we can support faculty in developing those skills more deeply. We’ve got technology-embedded programs all over campus that faculty use in incredible ways. We’re already using distance education to enhance our current education but we are thinking about new approaches that make learning easier and more accessible.

I think about the role of a place like UNCA and the fast-changing world we’re in right now and I think our role has never been more important. Having a commitment to a high-quality Liberal Arts University is essential to the success of the 21st century.

We need a place where people can come together and have thought-provoking conversations, where we can learn from each other, where we can use technology in the most responsible way—as a tool to support learning, not a substitute for it. We need places where people can develop and have a chance to be with people who are not just like them. That’s part of the high-touch educational opportunity here at UNCA.

At the same time we have a responsibility to look at the world our students are going out into to make sure they are sophisticated users of technology; that they understand how technology affects every facet of life. And, to be sure they can stay current since it’s always changing. What are its uses, how can they be on the front end of it; how to evolve, helping to design the next iteration of tools and technology. Our students are coming out of here as innovators, problem solvers and curious citizens. They’ll be on the front end of some of these things. I see it with the work some of our alumni are doing; the difference they’re making in their community.”


“Innovation is the driver of the 21st century; we have a program here where we’re helping students navigate the world of entrepreneurism. Last year two of our students took a statewide competition (as sophomores) and now have gone on to national competition for a product they are developing and want to bring to market. I was impressed by their ability to make a compelling case, to get people interested, to be clear on their outcomes, and how they were going to figure out if it worked or not. The pieces we’re bringing into our curriculum include programs like the business of music; students come with their passion for music but also develop the skills to be successful.

We help students do the important thinking, the theoretical pieces that have to happen, then give them the skills to apply that knowledge. Success (whether in large manufacturing or small boutique firms) requires the ability to innovate. I see it happening here all the time. What has come through in our strategic planning over and over is the value placed on that interaction between faculty and students.

UNCA Homecoming parade!

UNCA Homecoming parade!


We have a project in the RAMP… River Arts Makers Project on Riverside Drive near campus. We are renovating an old warehouse with some partners and we‘re going to move our mechatronics program, sculpture and other art projects so there’s one place where different disciplines come together to experiment, and work in a huge lab.

We have another place were working on right now with the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design (CCCD). We are going to be right on Broadway with classroom space, gallery space as part of a project creating a center for creative entrepreneurship and it will be right at the heart of downtown Asheville teaching any discipline. The goal is to create spaces with community partners where there can be more natural opportunities for creative interaction. And to really look at some of the things that drive our economy here so that our students can be part of it and our faculty can be experts contributing to some of the work and build deeper partnerships with our community partners.

Another innovation is getting out into the community — it’s a huge priority—to have a strong presence so others know what is happening on campus… if there’s a lecture or a play these are open to the public and the quality is tremendous. We want the community to know we are the four-year University, the intellectual hub. We belong to YOU. There are sports, cultural opportunities. We partnered with Asheville Citizen-Times and Ingles to bring back Concerts on the Quad to create shared community experiences.

We offer an additional place to generate innovation and connect to the community: the OLLI program, formerly the Center for Creative Retirement. A few years back, with a grant from the Osher foundation, it became Osher Lifelong Learning Institution, located in the Reuter Center on campus. The programs are membership driven—2300 members who are life-long learners contributing to new ways of thinking, and volunteering in the community.

One of the things I’m excited about as chancellor is helping people know what we’re doing and to really strengthen community ties… that’s how we do our best work of problem solving. We need to look at solutions to complex problems and that takes the time and space to work together. UNCA offers a dynamic place for this generation that really wants to make the world a better place.

Learn more at And to read the article mentioned at the beginning of this profile, check out the July/August 2015 issue of the Atlantic magazine.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker is the publisher and editor of WNC Woman magazine. She would love to read your comments; please email her at [email protected].

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