The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday October 27th

UNC's Centers and Institutes might see big cuts

Going into the legislative short session, Chancellor Carol Folt says she has her work cut out for her.

After UNC was dealt some sizable cuts in the governor’s proposed biennial budget, Folt said it’s obvious she has to educate members of the N.C. General Assembly on what these reductions would mean for higher education in the state.

“I do think this is part of a long-term trend where Carolina is trying to resize its budget,” Folt said in an interview following the Board of Trustees meeting last week. 

Some of the biggest cuts came to the little-known line item Centers and Institutes, which covers the University centers that focus on research, education and service.

“I think some of the issues about Centers and Institutes are that people don’t really know what those are,” Folt said. 

“I’m a teacher, so I look at all this as an opportunity to educate. I always say, ‘What are we not explaining about what we’re doing?’”

System-wide, the cuts to centers and institutes would total $13.1 million, and the 40 different centers and institutes at UNC make up about 44 percent of that number.

No fat left to trim

It’s the external dollars that research centers and institutes bring in that help make them a valuable investment to the state, said Barbara Entwisle, the vice chancellor for research, who oversees the 15 centers and institutes at UNC-Chapel Hill that are focused on research. She said the centers also have the ability to improve the lives of North Carolina residents.

“If I told you, ‘If you give me $1, I’ll give you $7.78,’ most people would go for that,” Entwisle said. “What that means is we’re bringing in money that goes toward lots of jobs in North Carolina right now.”

Entwisle said she was surprised the governor’s proposed budget doled out more cuts to the same research centers that just received hefty cuts in the last few years.

UNC-system centers and institutes have received cuts every year but two in the last decade, the largest cuts occurring in fiscal years 2010 and 2012, when they saw 23 and 15 percent cuts respectively.

“If you think about that, that’s already a lot of cuts,” Entwisle said. “There’s no fat there.”

Where it hits hardest

The Renaissance Computing Institute and the UNC Nutrition Research Institute are the two research centers with the largest state budgets — meaning they’ll likely be hit hardest by these cuts, Entwisle said.

Because the Nutrition Research Institute is located in Kannapolis N.C., most of its budget is dedicated to paying leasing and custodial costs. 

“That’s why the cut is so devastating to (the Nutrition Research Institute),” Entwisle said. 

“You can’t cut that. So you have to take almost all of the cuts in program. You can’t walk away from your agreements. You can’t do research and not pay your bills.”

Dr. Steven Zeisel, the director of the nutrition institute, said the proposed budget cut would amount to about $1.66 million of the institute’s budget. Between fiscal years 2010 and 2011, the center had to lay off almost 50 percent of its staff after it saw $1.5 million in cuts from the state.

“Undoubtedly, another reduction of this magnitude will adversely impact the NRI’s ability to contribute to job creation and economic development in Kannapolis,” Zeisel said in an email to Entwisle.  

The story is similar for the Renaissance Computing Institute, which helps professors in all areas of research — from collecting data to writing grant proposals. 

“If the cuts come through, we’re going to have to cut some programs in order to protect our core business,” said Stan Ahalt, director of the institute. 

“The things that spur economic development in the state are the types of things we’ll have to cut because we’ll have no choice.”

Ahalt said his institute has been forced to look closely at programs in popular areas like data science. 

“It’s a net gain for the state,” Ahalt said. 

“So this cut makes no sense to me because (research centers) bring in money for the state.”

The proposed budget reduction might have negative repercussions for other departments who depend on his institute for help with their own funding, Ahalt said.

“Unfortunately, what a budget cut means is people,” Ahalt said. “It means jobs. Not only our jobs, but also the people who we can’t help bring in research dollars. It’ll have an impact on their budget too.”

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