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The Daily Tar Heel

Adapting to a new political reality

The 2010 shift to a Republican majority in the N.C. General Assembly is reshaping the relationship between UNC-CH and lawmakers holding the purse strings for higher education.

The University wasn’t ready to navigate this new political climate, and that’s understandable. We’ve had education-friendly Democrats running the show in Raleigh for decades.

Many of these key champions (and UNC alumni) won’t be back in Raleigh next year. House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange, opted to retire this year because of redistricting. Former state Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, resigned in September to become a lobbyist.

“For many years we were fortunate to have very senior long-standing members as our champions,” said Jennifer Willis, UNC-CH’s new director of state relations. “And when you have that support over the years, sometimes it’s easy to be complacent.”

Of the 170 General Assembly members, nearly one third won’t be returning to Raleigh by default because they lost primaries, ran for higher office or didn’t seek re-election — a huge loss of institutional memory.

As the University’s lobbyist, Willis will be educating new legislators about why UNC is a good bargain for the state. But it’s also a reminder that, as she says, “we can’t rely on our reputation and our previous champions” for unwavering support.

Faced with a massive budget shortfall in 2011 and unwilling to raise taxes to avoid education cuts, the Republican-led legislature allowed state appropriations for post-secondary education as a share of North Carolina’s economy to drop to a 40-year low.

UNC-CH alone has weathered more than $238 million in state cuts since 2008.

The $19.6 million net funding increase for the UNC system in 2012, which included modest faculty and staff raises, was well below the $216 million that administrators requested.

But with Republicans likely to control most or all of state government in 2013, the University is learning to adjust to this new political reality.

UNC-CH is launching its biggest fundraising campaign ever to offset declining state support. Ongoing initiatives, such as implementing the results of a 2009 Bain & Company study and enacting energy efficiency improvements, should earn goodwill with legislators by showing the University is willing to identify ways to save taxpayer dollars.

Willis acknowledged that UNC has to be more visible and more active on outreach to the legislature. The UNC system’s state relations council is already showcasing the University’s accomplishments to targeted candidates and current members.

The University should continue to proactively and creatively make its case to legislators while preparing for the likelihood of scarcer budget resources from the state.

Elections have consequences, and UNC should adapt accordingly.

Stewart Boss is a columnist from the Daily Tar Heel. He is a senior public relations and public policy major from Bethesda, Md. Contact him at sboss91@live.unc.edu.

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