No Time to Subsidize Silliness

Editor’s note: This is a slightly longer version of an opinion article published in the Raleigh News & Observer on April 4, 2009. Since it was published, the North Carolina Senate presented a budget that was radically different (and $133 million larger) than Governor Perdue’s. The Senate restored several programs mentioned as cuts in the article, such as the expansion of the nursing program at N.C. Central and some engineering programs at N.C. State and N.C. A&T. While these specifics and others have changed, the basic premise of the article still stands—it’s time to stop subsidizing college silliness and waste.

Financial downturns perform a valuable service—they remove inefficient and unnecessary operations from the economy. The University of North Carolina system should regard the current fiscal crunch as an excellent opportunity to get back to basics and clean out some of the unserious dreck that has established itself in many departments.

The recession has handed university system president Erskine Bowles a financial mess. Governor Beverly Perdue’s recently proposed budget includes $192 million in cuts for UNC, 92 percent of them permanent. At a March 24th Senate Education Subcommittee meeting, Bowles strongly stated his belief that the system can only handle cuts of $125 million without adversely affecting the “academic core”—a situation he wishes to avoid.

Bowles has the big picture right—UNC is first and foremost an educational system and the looming budget cuts should not affect academic essentials. But it’s time to provide a precise definition of the core that includes justification for the taxpayer dollars used to subsidize higher education in North Carolina.

When the money is flowing freely, there is no end to academics’ “creativity” for putting tax dollars to use. Such courses as “Time Travel” and “Eating through American History” at N.C. State, “Stone Age Stereotypes” at Appalachian State, or “Hip-Hop: Culture, Economics and Politics” at UNC-Greensboro spring to mind.

While such academic side-excursions might be acceptable at a private school, it must be remembered that UNC is highly subsidized by taxpayers. Roughly 200,000 students attend state universities and North Carolina taxpayers handed the system nearly $3 billion for operating expenses alone last year.

Two main reasons for subsidizing higher education are to produce graduates in high-demand fields that improve the lives of residents, such as nursing, and to promote economic development, as technical professionals such as engineers are likely to do. Bowles acknowledged this at the Senate meeting—he suggested that cuts to planned expansions of nursing (at N.C. Central) and engineering (at N.C. A&T and N.C. State) programs are major drawbacks to Perdue’s proposed budget.

Without deep cuts elsewhere in the system, the state must forego the benefits likely to result from the cancelled programs.

Bowles, to his credit, has singled out one academic area where cuts can be made—the many institutes or centers that proliferate on campuses (UNC-Chapel Hill alone has over 200 such entities).

This is an excellent place to apply the fiscal scalpel. Such centers should be closely examined for elimination, funding cuts, or the combination with similar entities to save money through reduced administrative and facilities costs. Some of them have political agendas—the best known is Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, which provided John Edwards a launching pad for his failed 2008 presidential run (It receives some state support).

There is also redundancy galore. How about the Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center and the Institute for African American Research? They were at one time a single center. Or what of the N.C. Center for International Understanding, and the Center for Global Initiatives; are both necessary on the same campus? Bowles, to his credit, has suggested that such centers will be closely examined for elimination, funding cuts, or the combination with similar entities to save money through reduced administrative and facilities costs.

Another efficiency measure, mentioned by UNC-Chapel Hill vice chancellor for finance Richard Mann at the March UNC Board of Governors meeting, is combining or eliminating courses and programs with low enrollments. Such measures, which might be the least “painful,” are not likely to produce all the savings required, and might not be what’s best for the universities.

The entire system needs a thorough going-over, with intellectual merit and returns to the state’s economy as key guiding principles. Doing so might identify cuts that will help satisfy the governor’s desire for fiscal austerity, thus enabling Bowles to preserve some valuable programs that are now threatened.

To illustrate the need to adjust priorities, consider a statement by UNC-Chapel Hill presented to the Board of Governors. The university predicted that proposed cuts to its health programs will cause “a critical shortage of physical therapists, radiology assistants, and audiologists.” Yet its liberal arts curriculum has such non-essential courses as “Pornography and Culture” “The Challenge of Queer Theory to Literary Studies, Cultural Studies, and the Humanities,” and “Social Constructions of Women’s Bodies.”

Whose job should be saved—a physical therapy professor or the porno expert? (This should not be a difficult question to answer.)

The budget-cutting process is providing a glimpse at just how bloated the system has been allowed to become over the decades. N.C. State has proposed cutting 335 non-faculty positions. If the university can still function without them, what were all those people doing in the first place? This Raleigh News & Observer opinion piece written by two professors, “Top-Heavy at N.C. State,” and the subsequent letters to the editor about it: in defense of the university by Chancellor James Oblinger, and in defense of the article by two other professors (here and here), provide further insight into this situation.

The financial crisis could be a blessing in disguise, providing the impetus to return to the core mission of educating for productive purposes and to induce thoughtful contemplation, instead of amusing and titillating students, funding faculty hobbies, and providing government jobs. Bowles stated his concern that the cuts could erode the system’s quality, but the right cuts could improve it.