State legislators will advise on the UNC system's direction


Gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory (left) and Peter Hans, UNC BOG Chairman, converse after Bill Friday’s memorial on Oct. 17.

The UNC system is seeking to open up new channels of communication with state legislators in a novel way.

But the commitment of those legislators to higher education affordability has been questioned — ever since they assumed power in Raleigh.

In a move that signaled a desire to become more intimate with the legislative powers that be, the system included legislators on its Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions. The group is charged with helping President Thomas Ross and his staff develop a five-year strategic plan for universities by January. The plan aims to maximize universities’ efficiency while maintaining academic quality and affordability.

After Republicans won control of both chambers of the N.C. General Assembly for the first time in more than 100 years in 2010, legislators faced a budget shortfall as large as $3.7 billion.

The GOP leadership opted to enact spending cuts — rather than raise taxes in a sputtering economy — that included a $414 million budget cut for the UNC system last year.

The system’s Board of Governors responded by approving an 8.8 percent tuition increase systemwide to offset the cuts.

Joni Worthington, spokeswoman for the system, said in an email that including legislators on the committee could make them better informed about budget decisions.

She said including legislators on the committee was not a lobbying tool.

But Jay Schalin, director of state policy analysis for the right-leaning John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, said the system might be trying to influence the state’s political leadership.

Both N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Guilford, are members of the committee and voted for the budget cuts last year.

“There is far too much lobbying by the UNC system already,” he said. “The legislature should be in control rather than the UNC system trying to control the legislature.”

Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, is also serving on the committee.

The system could be trying to gain the political leaders’ support so the legislature will pass the strategic plan without any changes, said Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, chairman of the N.C. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.

“Their support is crucial,” he said. “It’s a good political move on the part of UNC.”

Jordan Shaw, spokesman for Tillis, said he didn’t think having three legislators on the committee was a way for the UNC system to lobby for more money.

“This is more than someone asking for money,” he said. “We all understand the state is not flush with cash.”

Schalin said including legislators in the committee would still be beneficial to reflect taxpayers’ interests.

“It’s time to look at the cost and see where the university system can find savings rather than always demanding money,” Schalin said.

But Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of liberal think tank N.C. Policy Watch, said Berger and Tillis are not advocates for public education.

“It’s interesting that they are helping plan the future of a university that they made the biggest budget cuts to in history,” he said.

Fitzsimon said there needs to be broader representation of students, faculty and professors on the committee in order to prevent budget cuts.

Shaw said legislators would seek to restore funding to the UNC system if the economy and tax revenue improves.

He said recent actions by the legislature, including a reduced tax rate, lessened regulations and a balanced budget, would stimulate the economy.

But Fitzsimon said he is not confident the legislature will restore the budget cuts made to the system.

“Their track record on the university system is troubling,” Fitzsimon said. “They need to be asked about that as part of this process.”

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