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Saturday December 4th

New UNC-system President Thomas Ross to face more cuts

UNC-system budget could lose 15 percent

Thomas Ross took over as UNC-System President on January 1, 2011
Buy Photos Thomas Ross took over as UNC-System President on January 1, 2011

Even the man with one of the toughest jobs in the state started his first few days of work with the simple things.

At the start of the new year, now UNC-system President Thomas Ross said he unpacked, settled in to his new office and got acquainted with his staff.

Ross even got a OneCard.

“A president is no different than anybody else,” he said.

But unlike most others, Ross, former president of Davidson College who was chosen in August to lead the 17 institutions of the UNC system, has to deal with the constant reminder of losing millions more in funding from the N.C. General Assembly and the burden of protecting the academic quality of the system’s campuses.

The state is currently projecting a $3.7 billion budget deficit in its $19 billion budget, which means the budget for the University system could be reduced by almost 19.5 percent, Ross and former President Erskine Bowles said Dec. 20 in a joint memo to UNC-system chancellors.

Universities had previously been told to prepare for cuts between 5 and 10 percent.

But according to the memo, the state has now asked all institutions to consider 15 percent reductions for next year and to start cutting the budget for the remaining fiscal year by a total of 3.5 percent.

The new round of cuts issued for this year — or “hold back” — came as somewhat of a surprise, said Bruce Carney, executive vice chancellor and provost for UNC-Chapel Hill.

He said the state is going to reduce its allocated funding to the system in the last quarter of the fiscal year.

“We are scrambling to figure out how to make that work,” Carney said.

Campuses are expected to submit proposals to reduce costs next week.

The cuts will mean leaving vacant positions unfilled and more layoffs, Carney said.

“There will be layoffs in all corners of the University this semester,” he said.

And unfortunately, the bad news continued for the UNC system.

Just days after Ross took over, N.C. Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Beaufort, who has been the UNC system’s key supporter in the state legislature, announced his retirement.

Basnight had planned on retiring in 2012, but decided to resign from his position this year because of health problems.

“I don’t know if there’s ever been a legislative leader in North Carolina more supportive of the University than Sen. Basnight,” Ross said.

“He has been a champion for the University.”

Basnight’s resignation comes after former Sen. Tony Rand, another ally for the system, resigned in 2009.

But Ross remained positive despite the loss.

“I don’t know that his loss alone is going to mean that all of a sudden money for the University disappears,” he said.

Even if Basnight had stayed on for another term in the N.C. Senate, the new Republican majority and the mounting state deficit would have reduced his influence in the legislature, UNC-system Board of Governors Chairwoman Hannah Gage wrote in an e-mail.

“It’s impossible to overstate his contribution to the University and equally difficult to predict the consequences of his absence, but it’s also important to recognize that he led in a very different time,” she said.

Gage said the system is already preparing for larger classes and heavier teaching loads.

Although the state is asking Universities to prepare for cuts of up to 15 percent, Carney said anything more than 5 percent could severely hurt the University and its research abilities.

The UNC-system Board of Governors will be discussing next year’s budget and implications of a 15 percent cut at its meeting on Jan. 13.

And Ross said he is looking to students for suggestions on making campuses more efficient.

Educating legislators about the importance of preserving the University system’s academic core will be the board’s main goal in the coming months, Gage and Ross said.

“The leadership is new but these are smart people and they understand the critical role the University plays in the state’s economic future,” Gage said.

Although the system faces a tough year ahead, Gage said she is confident the leaders at all levels will be able to steer their campuses through.

“There’s no magic bullet, no hidden pot of gold, no way to delay the inevitable anymore, so we dig in and we do what we’ve got to do,” she said.

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