The ‘unthinkable’ and Molly Broad

Clarion Call No. 50
In a contest of crises, the floods of Floyd won out over the underfunding of UNC. Or so it would appear. Certainly the state faced a crisis in the hurricane’s wake. But is the situation facing UNC right now a crisis?

The situation from UNC’s viewpoint is that it needs a huge injection of funds to deal with capital needs (repairs, renovations and new construction). Unfortunately for UNC, its need coincides with the greater needs of Floyd-ravaged eastern N.C. UNC President Molly Broad’s proposed increases for the UNC system takes this situation into account — sort of. It will seek a part of that huge injection of funds from the students, including a $100 facilities fee to be levied this fall on all students at all UNC campuses — the first time in history that students will be asked to pay for bricks and mortar — and $28 million to increase faculty salaries.

“We do this with great reluctance and grave reservations,” Broad said about the proposal. “The needs are so urgent that we’re willing to do what otherwise would be unthinkable.”

Is UNC honestly willing to do the “unthinkable”? Since when has asking for more money been unthinkable to a public university system? It’s apparent that by “unthinkable” Broad meant increasing tuition and fees, which departs from the state’s tradition of low-cost public higher education.

What’s really unthinkable at UNC is reining in spending — which is exactly what UNC would be doing if it faced an actual crisis.

In times of fiscal crisis, one’s first response is to tighten one’s own belt before going to others for help. This is what the General Assembly did in reaction to Floyd, and it found in doing so that there was no need for additional money from the taxpayers. Legislators funded part of the relief effort through the state’s “rainy day fund” for emergencies and part with the unappropriated money remaining in the state coffers. The bulk — over $500 million — of the relief funding, however, came from money already appropriated by the legislature but unspent by the state agencies.

Contrast that with UNC. The UNC system misallocated the nearly $1 billion it received in on-budget capital appropriations in the 1990s and (let’s not forget) from a voter-approved statewide bond issue in 1993, spending nearly half of that sum on low-priority projects instead of making the necessary repairs and renovations that have now reached the level of “urgent” needs.

UNC does need to look elsewhere for funding. Taxpayers in N.C. provide over 80 percent of the per-student cost of public higher education — the second-highest share in the nation. The beneficiaries (students) should shoulder more of the cost of their education, but that doesn’t mean the total cost of their education should increase.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported Dec. 17 that North Carolina ranks sixth in the nation in appropriations to higher education for 1999-2000. That’s quite a commitment, one hard to reconcile with the portrait painted by the UNC system. One wonders, then, what unnecessary expenses are causing the nation’s sixth-largest funding level to seem so critically low?

The solution — or at least its first step — to UNC’s “urgent” needs is indeed “unthinkable.” Set priorities, cut superfluous programs, until current needs and wants are affordable under the current funding level. Put simply, UNC simply must get its own house in order before asking us for more.

Otherwise, the message from UNC to the students and to the legislature is that its urgent needs are still less urgent than the least urgent unnecessary expense it is unwilling to cut.