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Talks continue on UNC-system research cuts

In the state budget that Gov. Pat McCrory signed in August, lawmakers directed the board to consider cutting $15 million from research centers, speaker series or other nonacademic areas and allocating that money to distinguished professorships and the system’s strategic plan.

Board member Marty Kotis said he thinks alternative sources of funding — potentially private sources — would best support the long-term future of the centers, as well as speaker series and nonacademic activities.

It’s possible the $15 million cut would be absorbed within those nonacademic areas and not affect the centers, he said.

“We don’t know yet what isn’t ‘academic’ out there that might fall within this,” he said.

At the meeting, which took place at Western Carolina University, the board received an overview of the centers and institutes, part of an ongoing conversation before a decision on the reallocation is made.

There are 237 centers and institutes across the system — and 80 of them are run through UNC-CH, including the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity and the UNC Nutrition Research Institute.

Seventy centers have been discontinued since 2009, almost three times the number that have been established.

The centers receive about $70 million from the system’s general fund and more than $555 million in grant awards. The system’s contribution to the centers has dropped by 40 percent since 2009.

Still, UNC-CH faculty chairman Bruce Cairns said in a recent interview that any cut would cause ripple effects.

“Any time cuts occur in one unit, it impacts the rest of the school,” he said. “Each unit works with various departments and faculty to try to maximize the funds we do get, so every program is important.”

Even if the centers do not wind up absorbing a $15 million cut, the funding for research centers and institutes needs to be scrutinized, Kotis said, to ensure that money is being spent to benefit students.

“If we’re helping students start careers and we’re curing cancer — that’s great — but you do have to prioritize those sorts of impactful items over less academic, less impactful items,” he said.

The board’s discussions on the $15 million have just started, Kotis said.

Board member W.G. “Champ” Mitchell said during an August meeting that the board should set a timeline for determining whether the reallocation will occur, though Kotis said after Thursday’s meeting that there is no deadline for a final decision.

Cairns said it’s not certain where potential cuts to UNC’s centers would be felt the most.

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“Everybody is thinking about how we should respond to these cuts,” he said.

“Until we get the final word from the Board of Governors, nobody knows for sure what we have to work with.”

Staff writer Stephanie Lamm contributed reporting.