UNC Budget Brawl Shaping Up

Finally! After a long, brutal winter, North Carolina is seeing a sure sign of spring—the annual tussle over the UNC system budget.

Two major developments occurred on Tuesday, March 4. The first was a declaration by state budget director Art Pope that the UNC system was “not realistic” in its initial request for a 4.6 percent increase in its operating budget.

The other was an announcement of a new Political Action Committee called Higher Education Works that “promises to build the case to bolster funding” for the UNC system, according to WRAL News. It joins the UNC’s already-considerable army of legislative liaisons, university chancellors, system officials, board members, and others who press for higher UNC funding each legislative session.

Higher Education Works is headed by David E. Rice, described by WRAL as “a former newspaper reporter turned lobbyist who has represented Citizens for Higher Education—a booster group that primarily promotes University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—at the legislature since 2005.”

Given Rice’s past, along with the backgrounds of its other major players, Higher Education Works efforts and positions should be regarded as part of the UNC system’s agenda. One of the initial funders is Dick Baddour, the former UNC-Chapel Hill athletic director forced to resign for his part in his school’s athletic scandal. Another is David Anna, a Chapel Hill builder whose firm has received many contracts from the UNC system.

Two other officers of the PAC, John Wallace and Maggie Barlow, are Democratic Party regulars with strong ties to past administrations and current members of the North Carolina General Assembly.

Accordingly, any attempt by Higher Education Works to be seen as an independent organization should be quickly dismissed. It is clearly one more weapon in the extensive arsenal of UNC backers and the state’s political establishment for the annual budget fight. It should be examined to determine just how closely it is tied to the UNC system.

Of course, it may not matter how many lobbyists and public relations experts UNC throws at Jones Street this year. Both the legislature and the governor’s office are likely to give the universities no more than a 2 percent increase in their operating budget, as there are plans underway to increase salaries of K-12 teachers and other state employees and to increase Medicaid funding.

While the UNC system officials cite statistics that suggest budget cuts from previous years “threaten academic quality,” there is another side to the story that doesn’t always make its way into the public eye. Consider the following:

  • In 2010, when the UNC system faced massive budget cuts, UNC-Charlotte’s chancellor Philip Dubois sent a letter to the faculty in which he describes how unfilled faculty positions insulated the school from all but a few lay-offs even with cuts at the 10 percent level. This is a longstanding practice at public universities, in which they are given additional funding to hire more professors due to enrollment increases but leave some positions open.
  • One of new UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Carol Folt’s first actions was to create five—five!—new positions to help the school with Title IX compliance. If UNC were indeed faced with a loss of academic quality due to budgets, such a move on her part would be an extreme extravagance; until recently, ensuring Title IX compliance was handled by one administrator on a part-time basis. (Title IX is part of the 1972 Amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965. It has been highly criticized as excessively aggressive in such matters as athletics, forcing many schools to eliminate men’s sports programs.)
  • At the same time, the university will be paying a team of lawyers—one of them at $990 per hour—to complete yet another investigation into academic misconduct in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. It appears that the new study will break no new ground.
  • According to some preliminary findings by the Pope Center for a full report to be published later this spring, faculty workloads for tenure-track professors have not changed all that much since before the large cuts in 2010.
  • Enrollment has been flat for several years. The number of freshmen who enrolled actually dropped from 2008 to 2013.

Given the likelihood that the governor’s office and legislature will hold the line on additional funding for UNC this year, it may be best for the university system to concentrate on finding ways to become more efficient and focused instead of demanding more money. Examining campuses for unnecessary staffing—such as Chapel Hill’s team of Title IX compliance officers—comes to mind.