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NC Senate leaders say UNC campuses safe – for now

University campus leaders and boosters don’t have to worry that any of their schools will be shuttered in the next two years, but the prospect of future campus closures or mergers remains alive.

Senate leader Phil Berger said the Senate two-year budget will not include any of the 17 UNC campuses, but the university system should always be under review.

“I just don’t know that the closing of a campus is something that we’re in a position to move forward on in the upcoming budget year,” Berger said. “I do think folks will continue to talk about those things. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for people to be discussing.”

The prospect of closing a campus triggered an outcry from communities around the state, with legislators called to answer whether campuses in their regions were in jeopardy.

N.C. A&T State University Chancellor Harold L. Martin Sr. said that by the time representatives from historically black colleges and universities met with Gov. Pat McCrory on Tuesday morning, they didn’t need to talk about campuses closing next year because they were sure it wasn’t happening.

Bryan Perlmutter, an N.C. State University senior who protested budget cuts this year, said the backlash forced senators to back away from the idea.

“We need to make investments in the future. Closing down schools eliminates jobs, hurts the towns the universities are in. It’s an unacceptable option for North Carolina,” said Perlmutter, a member of the Student Power Union.

Sen. Pete Brunstetter, the Winston-Salem Republican who last month floated the idea of one or two campuses closing, said the UNC system Board of Governors should be examining efficiency and program duplications.

By the middle of the year all 32 members of the system’s governing board will have been elected by the Republican legislature, and candidates for the posts are being asked about their willingness to look at adapting the system to “the current funding environment,” Brunstetter said.

The legislature is less likely to intervene in critical decisions if there’s a Board of Governors that’s “not afraid to look at hard issues,” he said.

The idea of closing campuses has been floated for years, but former UNC system President Erskine Bowles made it a prominent issue two years ago when the state was facing a $3 billion budget hole. Bowles said campuses would have to be eliminated if the universities continued to face serial budget cuts.

The UNC system has endured significant budget cuts in the past few years. Per-student state funding dropped nearly 13 percent from 2007-2008 to 2011-2012.

McCrory’s budget did not close any campuses, but reduces overall spending by $139 million.

Frank Grainger, vice chairman of the Board of Governors, said the board hasn’t discussed closing campuses, but that doesn’t mean it won’t.

“As everybody says, in today’s world, nothing is off the table,” Grainger said.

Passing hard decisions on to an appointed board moves them out of the spotlight and reduces the risk to elected officials, said Sen. Martin Nesbitt, an Asheville Democrat.

“Nobody watches appointed bodies, and you wake up one day and everything you’ve got’s gone,” said Nesbitt, the Senate minority leader.

UNC campuses need to be watchful from now on, Nesbitt said, because proposals to close campuses aren’t going to disappear.

Berger said consolidating payroll, personnel and other administrative jobs makes sense, and more substantial changes could come.

“There are ways for us to continue to have a university system that is among the best in the country, but it doesn’t have to look exactly like it does now forever,” Berger said.

Staff writer John Frank contributed.

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