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Friday January 15th

UNC system’s plans to cut unnecessary degree programs could threaten UNC-CH applied sciences initiative

Although a concrete plan to eliminate redundant degree programs at UNC-system schools has still not been established, a new initiative by UNC-CH has raised questions about what programs would be deemed unnecessary.

University administrators formed a task force this summer to expand the applied sciences, the practical application of basic science research to address societal needs.

But task force members say the existence of applied sciences and engineering programs at the UNC system’s other flagship institution — N.C. State University — just 25 miles down the road suggests the University’s efforts might be perceived as unnecessary by the system’s Board of Governors.

Jim Woodward, former chancellor of UNC-Charlotte and NCSU, was hired by UNC-system President Thomas Ross to review the system’s 2,000 degree programs to identify strategies for degree consolidation in January.

Woodward, who began the review in March, said it’s reasonable that an institution with a tradition in the health sciences would begin to transition to the applied sciences.

“I really sort of see this as a natural evolution of the University’s response to the changing demands on the University,” he said. “It’s apparent duplication but not real duplication.”

NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson said he’s not concerned about the potential for duplicate programs after talks with Bruce Carney, UNC-CH executive vice chancellor and provost. N.C. State’s program has more applications for the environmental and agricultural sciences, he said.

“Given their strength in medical science and pharmacy, I think it makes perfect sense,” he said. “We do health-related things, but not the way Carolina does.”

While UNC-CH’s expansion of its applied sciences program is still in the formative stages, administrators envision the program as an interdisciplinary effort — which will partner the University’s medical schools with departments such as chemistry, biology and computer science, said Mike Crimmins, associate dean of UNC-CH’s College of Arts and Sciences and member of the task force.

The UNC system’s focus on more efficient academic operations was reiterated by Ross in his inauguration speech earlier this month.

Ross said universities should strive to offer more online classes and eliminate wasteful programs after absorbing more than $1 billion in state funding cuts during the last five years.

But Crimmins said a number of factors will keep the applied sciences program in line with UNC-system administrators’ cost-cutting goals.

The task force plans to secure private sources of funding for the program in addition to the $1 million in state enrollment funds already pledged by Carney for startup costs. UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp has designated $15 million — part of his $125 million fundraising campaign for innovation at the University — to five distinguished professorships in the applied sciences, Crimmins said.

Administrators also want to keep the program limited in scope — at least in its initial stages — by avoiding the creation of any new schools or deans and building upon existing partnerships with other campuses, such as the joint biomedical engineering program between UNC-CH and NCSU.

Woodward said the board would consider the funding sources and opportunities for collaboration with any new programs proposed by the University.

“We know that there’s not going to be any state money to speak of,” he said.

“For the institution to plan to fund these programs — really by reallocation of internal funds plus new private funds — makes a great deal of sense.”

University administrators also say a more prominent applied sciences program would increase the college’s intake of federal grants compared to its peers.

UNC-CH received 1.3 percent of the $28.5 billion allocated for federal science and engineering grants in 2007, according to data compiled by the National Science Foundation.

Yet UNC-CH ranked 19 among universities for federal agency funding, trailing several peer institutions approved by the board this month — including the University of Minnesota, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan.

While UNC-CH seeks to expand its applied sciences program without incurring extra costs, Woodward said he’s less concerned about degree duplication at the UNC system’s bigger institutions.

Reviewing requests for approval of doctoral programs at some of the smaller universities — which often lack an active and successful research component — will be the biggest challenge for the board going forward, he said.

Woodward will unveil his full report on unnecessary duplication at the board’s November meeting.

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