In the Electric City, under its own power

by Brian Clarey

They take us from the parking lot in golf carts to the Plato S. Wilson School of Commerce on the sunny and idyllic campus of High Point University, though the trip is maybe a hundred yards up a slight grade.

And in the lobby, underneath the chandeliers and bathed in light seeping through the windowed rotunda, men in suit jackets make a Rorschach pattern on the rug before loosely dissipating towards the buffet line and into the dining hall.

Steamed vegetables. Asian slaw. Fileted chicken breast, glazed, with roasted new potatoes. Lady fingers for dessert.

The drum began to bang a month ago concerning today’s announcement, with personalized invitations and follow-up phone calls, and the room is near capacity with boosters, politicos, alumni and staff. Among the advances HPU has made in the last five years is a mastery of public relations. The working journalists have migrated to a corner table, where representatives of the High Point Enterprise, Greensboro News & Record and Carolina Peacemaker wile away the final moments before showtime. Virtually every television station in town has set up a camera along the back wall, flanked by a corps of still photographers.

On the other side of the room are Justin Catanoso, editor of the Business Journal, and Doug Clark, editorial writer for the N&R; both sit on the Nido R. Qubein School of Communications Board of Advisors, along with inspirational speaker Zig Ziglar, Top 40 stalwart Casey Kasem, Oprah’s boyfriend Stedman Graham and Marysol Castro, a correspondent for “Good Morning America,” none of whom have shown up today.

Now university President Nido Qubein, put together like a wedding cake, commands the low podium by the screen. He fawns a bit on the last five years at HPU, where under his leadership the school has exponentially increased its footprint, enrollment, employment and pretty much every other measurable dimension. He names the price tag for all this growth and success: $300 million, roughly double the size of the school’s debt, he says.

And then he lays down the lede: Over the next 10 years — or possibly seven — HPU will invest $2.1 billion on its growth, with grand plans that include all key areas of the school’s operations. And Qubein says he can do it without taking on any more debt.

There are millions allocated for athletics, scholarships, technology, housing and academics; a slate of buildings to continue the construction boom on campus, which allowed, among other things, the Plato S.

Wilson School of Economics where we now digest our catered lunches. Two years ago it was just an idea.

A new basketball arena. A bigger library. New dorms and dining facilities. A Greek Village to house the fraternity and sorority faction, already underway. A School of Education.

But the biggest news behind the big number is the School of Health Sciences, which will include majors like occupational therapy and certification for physicians’ assistants. A couple Duke professors have already been tapped for leading roles in the school’s development. And Qubein says the discipline will include a pharmacology school.

That’s the one that makes you jump in your seat, because it wasn’t so long ago UNCG had aspirations for a pharmacy program. They ran the notion through the UNC system bureaucracy where it was nixed at the top of the food chain.

Qubein didn’t ask for anybody’s permission to build the department, he says, though he did make a few calls to his friends at UNCG, his alma mater, to make sure the UNC thing was dead before giving the final green light.

That’s a pretty big story, at its heart the encapsulation of a theme prevalent in political debate today: the difference between public institution and private enterprise.

The UNC system is surely a fine and noble achievement for the state, but all UNC schools rely on the state budget for funding, a budget subject to variances in tax revenue and spending priorities — this year, for example, saw $54 million in cuts, not unreasonable in this time of economic crisis, I suppose.

HPU’s revenues, even in the couple years since the Dow Jones Industrial Average halved, have climbed steeply according to Qubein’s PowerPoint numbers.

Of course, all this capitalism isn’t cheap. HPU’s annual undergraduate tuition, about $35,000, is roughly five times what an in-state resident will pay at UNC-Chapel Hill, and about $10,000 more than outof-state tuition costs — though the UNC numbers don’t include student fees, housing and meal plans, which are rolled into HPU’s tuition.

HPU is a private school, so Qubein doesn’t have to open his books to anybody except trustees and other internal, big-picture folk. But he says that private donations comprise the bulk of the university’s wealth, and he sees no reason for that to abate as this next phase plays out. So yes, a pharmacy school. A redevelopment of Fifth Street. Even a football team is in the works for HPU, most of it on the largesse of donors, some of whom are filing out of the Plato S. Wilson School of Commerce right now, hooking bountiful gift bags before loading into the golf carts.

The ones who choose to hike down the slope to the parking lot are treated to a glimpse of Qubein on the side veranda of the business school. The TV cameras set up in a reverent semi-circle to catch Qubein reflecting on his announcement, framed by blue skies and clean brick façades.