Budget cuts to the UNC system totaling more than $500 million since 2011, the elimination of the N.C. Teaching Fellows program and years of faculty pay freezes have marched their way through the legislature while often sparking an outcry from UNC-system campuses. More recently, a bill was introduced which would require UNC-system professors to teach at least four classes a semester, which hasn’t sat well with faculty.
Politics are an inherent part of public universities in the state, as their governing board is appointed by the legislature. But faculty and other critics have condemned the Board of Governors for becoming more politicized — forcing the resignation of UNC-system President Tom Ross and closing three academic centers, including the UNC-CH Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.
Fiscal austerity in the wake of the recession and the rise of Republican majorities in the state have changed the dynamic between higher education and the government, said Ferrel Guillory, a UNC journalism professor and director of the Program on Public Life.
“Under the Democratic majority, the legislature had really powerful friends,” said Guillory, who listed former Speaker of the N.C. House Joe Hackney and former N.C. Senate Pro Tempore Marc Basnight among UNC’s allies. “It isn’t that the University got everything that it wanted, but the University and those legislators were in sync in thinking about how the University contributed to the economic and civic life of the state.”
Unlike businesses and other special-interest groups, UNC-system schools are not allowed to hire outside lobbyists to gain lawmakers’ ears, though the system itself has a lobbyist.
Jonathan Kappler, director of state government relations for the UNC system, said the system can offer unity that would be hard to replicate with private lobbyists for each campus.
“We are one system, we have one budget request, one policy agenda,” he said. “Smaller institutions may not be in Raleigh as often, but they are getting the same information on what is happening there.”
Kappler said some schools in the UNC system naturally have advantages over others; larger schools have more alumni, and schools closer to Raleigh can spend more time in the Capitol.