UNC Charlotte’s time to step up

The Observer editorial board

UNC Charlotte officials say their 27,000-student campus has been among the fastest-growing in the 17-school UNC system. It is expected to grow to 35,000 students in coming years.
UNC Charlotte officials say their 27,000-student campus has been among the fastest-growing in the 17-school UNC system. It is expected to grow to 35,000 students in coming years. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

When the University of North Carolina Board of Governors convenes its monthly meeting on the campus of UNC Charlotte Thursday, it will mark the full group’s first visit in four decades.

They’ll find a lot has changed since their last trip. Back then, UNCC was a scrappy little commuter school, just happy to be under the same umbrella with the likes of UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State. Now, it’s a 27,200-student university, one of the state’s largest, with nearly two dozen doctoral programs and an estimated regional economic impact of $2.1 billion annually.

Still, the state’s work is far from done at UNCC. As much as the school has grown, its research footprint must expand to meet the needs of one of the fastest-growing metro regions in America.

That fact snapped into focus for local leaders nearly two years ago, when the Charlotte Chamber’s annual fact-finding inter-city trip focused on Houston.

The Charlotte visitors toured the 1,300-acre Texas Medical Center campus, the largest medical complex in the world. Built to cushion the city from oil busts, it boasts more than 20,000 doctors, nurses and researchers attached to three medical schools, two universities, two pharmacy schools and a dental school.

Two common-sense takeaways from that trip: We need to keep growing our medical sector. And as Charlotte continues climbing toward the top tier of U.S. cities, we will need more from UNCC. Much more.

Admittedly, spending more on medical schools or law schools isn’t what the Republican-led General Assembly has in mind. Their Board of Governors is trimming programs instead. Witness the current controversy over plans to cut policy think tanks such as the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill, whose director Gene Nichol has criticized Republican policies.

Academics are understandably concerned that this round of cuts could have a chilling effect on other scholarship Republican leaders might find unpleasant. That’s clearly not what we need at our universities.

If GOP leaders really are more concerned about fiscal stewardship than ideological warfare, they could show it by redirecting those energies toward growing partnerships with private industry. Major corporations such as Siemens and Belk have been pouring millions into growing the engineering and data analytics programs at UNCC, for instance.

With industry clamoring for more graduates of such programs, growing those programs would seem a wise investment. UNCC just received a $2 million state grant for data science research, but seeks $2 million more next budget year and $1.9 million the year after. Not to mention $12.6 million toward a new science building. It’s not hard to picture such requests failing in the current budget-cutting atmosphere.

Former UNCC Chancellor Jim Woodward told the editorial board this week that when he arrived at the school in 1989, Charlotte was the largest metro area in the United States without a doctoral granting institution. That’s been fixed. Still, state spending per full-time equivalent student is $8,104 at UNCC this year, third-lowest among the 17 UNC system campuses – the same rank the school occupied eight years ago.

We understand the board has to balance the political tensions and educational needs of all the state’s regions. But it’s hard to see the business sense in making the highest-growth university in perhaps the highest-impact economic region among the cheapest to operate on a per-student basis.

With roughly half the entire UNC system’s growth coming at UNCC in the past six years, it’s also hard to see how that dynamic can last much longer.

N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill are North Carolina’s major public research universities.

“The third, if it’s not quite there yet,” Woodward said, “is going to be UNC Charlotte.”

It’s time for the state legislature, and the Board of Governors, to help UNC Charlotte become what this region needs it to be.