Two years ago, when North Carolina faced a potential $3 billion budget hole, then-UNC system President Erskine Bowles raised the prospect of closing one or more of the states 17 campuses.
If we keep having cuts, cuts, cuts, well have to look at eliminating schools, campuses, he said at the time. That would be the smart decision. The unfortunate, smart decision.
The financial picture is not nearly as dire this year the state expects 3.6 percent revenue growth next year but Republican legislative leaders are intent on reviving the discussion, sparking an outcry among Democrats and UNC advocates.
State Sen. Pete Brunstetter, a budget committee co-chairman, said Republican lawmakers envision possibly closing or consolidating one or two UNC system campuses to eliminate overlapping programs, save money and focus limited resources on the colleges and universities that are thriving.
There should be no sacred cows, the Winston-Salem Republican said in an interview Friday. The UNC system needs to be subjected to the same scrutiny as everything else.
Brunstetter cautioned that it is too early in the dialogue to identify particular campuses that could close, merge or transfer to the community college system all ideas lawmakers are considering.
If Erskine (a Democrat) said it ... then it certainly needs to be looked at, said Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake Forest Republican and education budget writer.
The UNC system endured a budget cut of more than $400 million two years ago, almost 15 percent, and per-student state funding dropped nearly 13 percent from 2007-2008 to 2011-2012.
Gov. Pat McCrory proposed a budget this week that reduces overall spending by nearly $139 million next year. But his budget did not call for closures or consolidations.
UNC President Tom Ross said people may think that closing a campus would yield big savings, but the students would probably go to another campus and state education dollars would follow the students. Theres also the question of what to do with the states huge investment in campus facilities, which would be difficult to sell.
And, he said, the campuses are typically among the largest employers and providers of cultural opportunities in their communities.
Theres a lot of ramification to a decision like that, Ross said, and I would hope that the General Assembly would be careful in thinking through those before any decisions are made.
War against universities
The concept of eliminating a campus shocked Democrats. I think cutting or eliminating any institution should be the last resort not the first topic of conversation, said Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat.
The problem with (Republicans) and their approach, added Senate Democratic leader Martin Nesbitt, is its never a dialogue, its a threat.
Faculty should rise up to meet that threat, said W. Hodding Carter III, professor of leadership and public policy at UNC Chapel Hill.
These guys are intent on going to war against the public university system in this state, said Carter, who will speak next week about recent legislative moves at a scholars forum dubbed Save Our State at Duke University. Standing on the sidelines is not for anyone who cares about higher education.
Some UNC leaders were quiet on the issue. Peter Hans, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, declined to comment Friday. But in November, he told the universitys strategic planning group that significant change was coming. He suggested the system shape its destiny, rather than resist and hope the forces of change will mysteriously leave us untouched.
The universitys five-year plan includes self-imposed efficiencies, and a report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company proposed downsizing and eliminating duplication in academic programs. The consultants report wasnt discussed publicly by the UNC Board of Governors or the universitys strategic committee but was used as a fact base for the strategic planning process, said UNC spokeswoman Joni Worthington. The $2.6 million study was paid for by an anonymous donation to the UNC Foundation, Worthington said.
Still the correct model?
It does not propose shuttering campuses, and UNC leaders have so far not discussed that. But they have talked about sharing administrative and purchasing functions among universities to save money.
Undergraduate enrollment has been flat for several years, and some campuses have struggled to meet their enrollment goals as the admissions standards have been raised, former UNC board chairwoman Hannah Gage said in an email Friday.
So a discussion of downsizing, repurposing or redesigning parts of the university is not inappropriate, she wrote. But the topic is complex, nuanced and not just one of economics, and needs to be done in a balanced thoughtful way that truly serves the state and its people; it needs to be done outside of politics as much as possible and therein lies the danger of having it now.
Brunstetter called the UNC system one of our most valuable resources in terms of education and economic development. But he said lawmakers appear willing to consider a different direction.
Republican lawmakers want to evaluate whether the 17-campus system is still the correct model, he said. In particular, Republican budget writers are looking at whether different campuses offer the same programs and whether underperforming schools are draining resources.
The UNC system campuses for a time got into a pattern of trying to be all things to all people, he said. To me, these are pretty fair questions to ask.
Ross said the universities had already taken big steps toward efficiency in the aftermath of budget cuts. In the past four years, he said, the university systems cost per degree is down 11 percent, while producing 17 percent more degrees.
We are demonstrating already that we can be more efficient and effective, but also this is a growing state and we need to educate more people, he said.
Barefoot pointed to Georgias move earlier this year to consolidate eight campuses into four. The state budget is a fixed pot, he said. The pie can only be divided so many ways.
House and Senate budget writers have not formally discussed a plan to close any campuses, but Republicans in both chambers believe its a path to consider. The lawmakers believe the ultimate decision on any closures or consolidations likely would come to the Board of Governors. (This week legislators elected 16 new members of the board, giving it an overwhelming GOP majority.)
Which schools might go?
Its simply a part of trying to analyze where we do best and where we might have problems, said Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican. I think its an appropriate discussion, but I dont have any preconception about where the discussion might go.
Democrats are wary about potential targets, such as the states five historically black colleges and universities, smaller institutions and those located in the same area, such as UNC Greensboro and N.C. A&T State University.
Theres always been talk about closing the HBCUs that weve said absolutely no to, said Nesbitt, referring to when Democrats held power. They all have distinctly different missions, and they are providing a distinctly different service to the state.
Rep. Ken Goodman, a Rockingham Democrat, represents an area surrounding UNC Pembroke. He said the university is a vital component in a rural community. Its a pretty important economic engine to the state, he said. The kids in our part of the state are poor. They may have all the ability in the world ... but they are just not able to go to UNC Chapel Hill or N.C. State.
This gives them the spark that allows them to escape poverty, he said.