UNC system looking at campus centers, cuts may follow

By: - November 6, 2014 8:58 am


Leaders of the state’s university system are midway through a review of the academic centers and research institutions at 16 campuses across the state, a process that could lead to cuts and consolidations of programs.

The Republican-led state legislature paved the way for up to $15 million in cuts in last year’s budget by requiring that the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors and campus leaders “shall consider reducing State funds for centers and institutions, speaker series, and other nonacademic activities.”

The review – which began earlier this year with 237 centers from a variety of academic disciplines– is led by a working group of members of the UNC system’s Board of Governors.

The group whittled down its examination to 91 centers that receive $49 million in direct state funding, most of which are located at the state’s two largest research campuses, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University.

Members of the Board of Governors conducting the review say it’s premature to say whether any centers will be eliminated and are looking to see if centers on different campuses are duplicating efforts, have limited roles teaching students or receive federal or other types of research funding.

“We don’t have a predetermined outcome,” said James Holmes Jr., a Raleigh accountant appointed to the Board of Governors in 2011 by the Republican-led legislature.

Those 91 centers and institutes (scroll down to see a list) also received more than $189 million in other sources of funding, according to documents provided by the UNC system. The process is expected to finish by the end of the year.

The long list of groups under review range from the Center for Turfgrass Environmental Research and Education at N.C. State University ($589,026 in state funding) to the Chapel Hill-based Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, a center run by Gene Nichol*, a controversial law professor whose public criticisms of the state’s current political leadership have rankled some on the UNC Board of Governors.

The poverty center receives no direct funding from the state’s general fund but did receive $20,550 in in-kind support from the university system and $28,394 in other forms of funding, according to documents from UNC.

Holmes, who has been leading the review committee, said he hopes final recommendations are finished in December, so that the full UNC Board of Governors can take any needed action at its January meeting.

“A lot of people have looked at this with a level of skepticism,” Holmes said, about outside speculation about what motivated the review. “It’s been fair, logical and objective.”

He added that the review, the first time all of the centers in the UNC system have been examined, did not stem from changes over the last few years in the state’s political leadership.

“This is a conversation that has been going on a long time,” Holmes said. “This is not a partisan issue.”

Outside interest in UNC system’s centers

Culling the number of academic centers and institutes on UNC campuses is a cause long championed by conservative think tanks in the state bankrolled by Art Pope, the prominent Republican fundraiser and Gov. Pat McCrory’s former budget director.

Pope, himself, told the UNC Board of Governors in September that they should look at trimming the number of centers and institutes in the university system.

 “Where can budget writers find savings to help fund priorities such as teacher raises?,” wrote Bob Luebke, a Civitas Institute staff member in a June opinion piece. “That’s a question on everyone’s mind these days. In our opinion, a review of UNC Centers and Institutes might be a good place to start.”

Some of the groups on the review list, including the Center for Marine Sciences at UNC-Wilmington and the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy at UNC-Chapel Hill , named for the former Democratic governor, were mentioned by Luebke in his article.

Other groups in the review range from high-profile medical research centers like the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center in Chapel Hill (which receives $1.6 million in state funding) and the UNC Nutrition Research Institute ($8.2 million in state funding) based in Kannapolis.

Many the centers and institutes up for review seek little to no direct funding from the state. Those include places like the North Carolina Motorsports and Automotive Research Center at UNC-Charlotte and the Center for New North Carolinians at UNC-Greensboro, a group that studies and advocates for immigrant populations in the state.

One of the areas that the group is looking at is duplication of efforts, and Holmes pointed to various institutes and centers that study coastal issues in the state. On the review list are at least seven centers and institutes at four campuses related to coastal research, including the UNC Coastal Studies Institute at East Carolina University, the Center for Marine Sciences at UNC-Wilmington and the North Carolina Sea Grant program at N.C. State University.

“We’ve got tons of [university research] activity up and down the coast,” Holmes said. “Are we being duplicative?”

Susan White, the executive director of the North Carolina Sea Grant and the Water Resources Research Institute, which is also under review, said North Carolina’s long coastline has numerous opportunities for academic research, part of the reason why so many institutes exist.

The state’s coast and inland estuaries offer chances for scientists to study varied ecosystems but also are often in need of help from public university experts to contend with unique economic challenges that face coastal communities, she said.

Part of the Sea Grant program, which is funded by $2 in federal dollars for every $1 in state funding,  places extension agents in coastal communities to serve as resources for integrating marine science in local schools as well as offering support in developing local economies and fisheries.

“We’re bringing science that our communities ask for,” White said.

At N.C. State University, Jonathan Horowitz says he sees the Board of Governors’ inquires as opportunities, instead of threats.

Horowitz, in addition to being a professor of molecular biomedical sciences, is the assistant vice-chancellor for research development and has coordinated the campus response to the UNC Board of Governors’ review.

“We feel like we have a fantastic roster of centers and institutes,” Horowitz said. “It’s nice that the Board of Governors is interested in what we’re up to.”

Note: Gene Nichol, the head of the UNC Center on Poverty, also serves on the board of the N.C. Justice Center, an anti-poverty non-profit that N.C. Policy Watch is a project under. He had no role in the reporting or writing of this article.

Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or [email protected].

UNCBOG by NC Policy Watch

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Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few, former Investigative Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch for five years, conducted investigations and watchdog reports into issues of statewide importance. Ovaska-Few was also staff writer and reporter for six years with the News & Observer in Raleigh, where she reported on governmental, legal, political and criminal justice issues.