In its first 37 years, the multi-campus UNC system never experienced the financial strains it has been grappling with since the 2008 recession.
On Tuesday, state higher education leaders went to the N.C. General Assembly as part of the UNC system’s University Day tradition of lobbying the legislature in Raleigh before the state budget is finalized.
The N.C. Senate’s 2014-15 budget, which passed in the chamber last week, was praised by system President Tom Ross for funding faculty pay increases and allocating up to $20 million for the system’s five-year strategic plan.
But the Senate’s original proposal included a provision that could have forced at least one UNC-system school, Elizabeth City State University, to close for good — the latest sign of budget cuts’ impact on campuses.
The provision, which was not included in the final Senate budget proposal, mirrored a similar situation last year, when legislators took no action after discussing campus consolidation as a way the system could operate more efficiently.
Still, last year the Board of Governors said the UNC system’s structure requires continuous review — and the Elizabeth City State proposal represents new cause for concern, said Ferrel Guillory, a UNC-CH journalism professor and director of the Program on Public Life.
“That’s not a push to break up the system, but it is going to put some pressure on the system to examine whether the system should continue to consist of 17 institutions,” he said.
Forty-three years after the consolidated UNC system debuted, fresh tensions are swirling within its institutions as campus leaders wonder how much penny pinching their schools can handle.
Several schools have merged departments or eliminated programs — Elizabeth City State announced last fall that seven of its degree programs were up for discontinuation, including history and political science.
“It’s clear through the ‘80s and ‘90s that this state made substantial investments in higher education as its principal way of thinking about economic and social development,” Guillory said. “We’ve seen an erosion of that persistent investment.”
The annual budget process spurred the creation of the original 16-campus system in 1971 — legislators felt it was chaotic to have each campus proposing its own budget, said John Sanders, former director of UNC-CH’s School of Government. The N.C. School of Science and Math was added in 2007 as the 17th school to the UNC system.
Now schools submit budget requests to the UNC-system General Administration, and system President Tom Ross and his staff present an all-encompassing budget to the legislature.
Guillory, who was working for the (Raleigh) News & Observer when the system was consolidated, said some administrators and faculty, particularly at UNC-CH and N.C. State University, initially thought the model would take away from their reputations.
But Sanders, a vice president to former system President Bill Friday during the system’s early years, said the multi-campus structure has not homogenized the system.
He said the system model has helped schools preserve support from the state without having to individually lobby for money. Otherwise, the constant political and financial pressures would be disruptive to many universities, he said.
“I don’t think all of the institutions could live under that competitive state,” he said.
In a 1993 article compiled for the General Assembly, Sanders wrote that while the N.C. Constitution guarantees the UNC system’s existence, the legislature has the power to dissolve universities.
Still, Sanders said he thinks the longevity of the current UNC system’s structure has already been proven, given its four-decade existence.
“Ten years, 20 years from now, I don’t know,” he said. “But in the short term, I don’t see anything better in terms of serving the state’s higher education needs.”
Peter Hans, chairman of the Board of Governors, said the system’s diversity offers students choices in geography and specialization and is an important characteristic to maintain.
Guillory said universities need to devote themselves more than ever to their role as catalysts for the state’s economy and development.
Andrew Powell, UNC-CH student body president, said he has joined system administrators and students to meet with over 20 legislators since May. He said the focus has been on demonstrating the system’s positive impact on North Carolina students.
Guillory said serving the state is integral to the UNC system’s mission. “Public support helps keep us public, and it’s our role to give back.”
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