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Budget shortfall expected to jeopardize staffing, course selection

Thomas Ross presides over his first BOG meeting on 1/13/11 at the Spangler Center board room. Hannah Gage sits to Ross's right.
Thomas Ross presides over his first BOG meeting on 1/13/11 at the Spangler Center board room. Hannah Gage sits to Ross's right.

At its first meeting of the year Thursday, the governing body of the UNC system welcomed a new year and a new president.

But wished for a new economy.

With a $3.7 billion expected state budget shortfall and thousands of positions and course sections systemwide on the chopping block, the UNC-system Board of Governors is bracing for the worst and gearing up to protect the academic core of its institutions.

The University system had originally been preparing for cuts between 5 and 10 percent. But in a recent memo to chancellors, new UNC-system President Thomas Ross told universities to prepare for cuts up to 15 percent.

In the last three years, the system has cut a total of $575 million, 23 percent in expenses and nearly 900 administrative positions. Another 15 percent cut this year would mean a $405 million reduction in a single year — most of which will come from the academic side.

“We’ve got a train wreck coming,” said board member John Davis during the meeting.

Chancellors are expected to present strategies to accomplish a 15 percent level of reduction to Ross this month.

“This is huge,” said N.C. State University Chancellor Randy Woodson. “We are trying to prepare ourselves for this by reducing our budget immediately.”

Woodson said in case of a 15 percent cut, administrators at NCSU might be forced to close down whole departments and colleges.

“This is not trimming around the edges,” he said.

Layoffs at campuses, including UNC-CH, are expected to start this semester, and Ross said he is leaving it to the chancellors to lead that charge.

A 10 percent cut would translate to 2,000 positions being eliminated.

The University system does not yet have predictions for a 15 percent cut.

“A fiscal cut of 15 percent is much more than we bargained for,” said UNC-Charlotte Chancellor Philip Dubois.

Board members said although the cuts to the academic side are going to be hard, the University system has no other choice.

“It would be an instance when you cut off a part of the body in order to maintain the rest of the body,” said board member Franklin McCain.

Another area that is expected to suffer significantly is research.

Steven Leath, vice president of research for the UNC system, said although research institutions in the state are growing rapidly, they are going to lose money not only from the state budget cuts but from the lack of stimulus funds.

“We are getting cuts at the same time as we’re growing,” he said. “We will recover but it will be a long term process.”

The N.C. General Assembly approved $22 million for research equipment for the UNC system last summer.

But universities never received that money, Leath said. Those funds will remain frozen until the Council of State gives the system its approval.

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To offset at least a portion of the cuts, most campuses have proposed tuition increases close to the cap of 6.5 percent.

The proposed increase for undergraduate residents at UNC-CH is $313.

If campus proposals are approved by the board next month and later by the N.C. General Assembly, the UNC system would be able to generate $63.8 million.

UNC-CH would generate $15.7 million of that total.

But chancellors know that money won’t be nearly enough.

“Do the math,” Dubois said. “There’s no way but to affect the academic side.”

View University of North Carolina system-wide budget cuts in a larger map to see the campuses that could be affected by possible budget cuts.

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