Effort to “right-size” the UNC system in the works

By: - March 5, 2015 2:08 pm


Significant changes may be on the horizon for the state’s higher education network, as the University of North Carolina’s governing board considers “right-sizing” the 17-campus system.

“The model should be much smaller than it is,” UNC Board of Governor member Harry Smith Jr. said about the UNC system last Thursday, during a committee meeting discussion about tuition and fee increases.

The system-wide review could result in recommendations to consolidate or shutter campuses and follows recent decisions by the UNC Board of Governors that have attracted public attention and criticism. The board, all appointed by a Republican-led state legislature, decided in January to replace UNC President Tom Ross by next year, and then last week moved to shut down three academic centers, including a poverty center run by a law professor critical of Republican state leaders.

Last week’s public comments about the upcoming system-wide review were repeated Friday by Smith, who chairs the governing board’s budget and finance committee, during a debate before the full UNC Board of Governors about tuition and fee increases.

Several members objected to the 2 to 7 percent in-state tuition and fee hikes, calling the increases unsustainable patches for gaps in the university system’s budget and unfair to students and families. North Carolina taxpayers contributed $2.6 billion of the $4.3 billion university budget.

“We’re getting ready to plow into the sustainability of the model,” said Smith, a Greenville businessman, before the 16-9 vote to approve the tuition increases over the next two years.

(Note: See the accompanying graphics here and at the end of this article for details about in-state tuition and fee increases.)


In an interview this week with N.C. Policy Watch, Smith said the fact-based review could include consolidations, closures or mergers with regional community colleges. He doesn’t know when it will begin, but hopes to start soon.

Campuses with low enrollments, subpar graduation, retention and job placement rates, as well as the state’s five public historically black colleges (HBCUs) will face tough questions, he said.

“It’s my personal opinion that it’s way too big,” Smith said, about the UNC system. “I’d like to look at the entire system and see how many campuses we need.”

He anticipates fielding criticisms from faculty, students, alumni and others, but says the review is long overdue.

“People have been ducking this conversation for a long time,” Smith said.

Ross, the UNC president, told reporters last week he wasn’t sure what the upcoming review would entail, but would be following it.

“I will be interested to watch and hear,” he said.

New direction for UNC Board?

The University of North Carolina’s governing board has spent much of 2015 in the spotlight, somewhat of a departure from past years. The UNC board is tasked with overseeing the system’s 16 university campuses, as well as the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, a residential school in Durham for advanced high school students, and UNC-TV, a statewide public television network.

Their appointments come from the state legislature, which has been controlled by Republicans since 2011. Half of the board is currently up for re-appointment, with both House and Senate members expected to vote on nominees later this month.

Two contentious decisions by the UNC Board of Governors – the unexpected move in January to get rid of Ross and last week’s closure of three academic centers –   has brought the public’s gaze, and scrutiny, to the board.

James Moeser, a former chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote in an essay published this week that recent actions by the board has him concerned about the future of the university system.

He is worried about “collateral damage to the university from these actions and from statements from people in high places that suggest a lack of support for academic freedom, a lack of understanding of the real purpose of a public university,” Moeser wrote.

Funding remains a major challenge for the state’s university system, which has seen the state’s share of per-student funding drop by 25 percent since the recession began in 2008 while tuition and fees have gone up by more than that, according to the Center on Budget and Public Priorities.

State coffers aren’t likely to cough up much more money for the university system this year, as the legislature contends with a shortfall from lower-than-expected tax revenues and competing requests from other branches of state government for funding.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget for 2015-17, which was released Thursday morning, would have the Board of Governors cut an additional $50 million to “achieve efficiencies,” while carving out $8 million additional funds for East Carolina University’s medical school, which has faced financial difficulties. House and Senate leaders will parse through the details of McCrory’s budget before passing a finalized two-year budget this summer.

Smith, the UNC Board of Governors member, said he’s hesitant to continually ask for state money for the university system without examining what he sees as inefficiencies.

He questioned whether the system, which educates more than 200,000 students, needs to be as large as it is or have as many distinct campuses in order to satisfy the state’s needs.

“We’re supposed to be preparing kids to make an economic impact on North Carolina,” Smith said.

The upcoming review introduced by Smith could dismantle academic programs that are serving their regions as well as students well, said Steve Leonard, a UNC-Chapel Hill political science professor and chair of the UNC system’s Faculty Assembly.

“You have to have institutions that are doing different things if you’re going to have intellectual innovation and intellectual diversity,” Leonard said.

Smith said he wants to remove as much as emotion as he can from the analysis and use figures about retention rates, economic impact, job placement and graduation rates as guides.

Historically black colleges will also be a focus, Smith said. North Carolina, with five campuses, has more public HBCUs than any other state.

A budget provision last year would have closed Elizabeth City State University, a small HBCU in the impoverished northeastern corner of the state which has struggled to keep enrollment up, but did not make the final budget.

“You’ve got to have a conversation about HBCUs,” Smith said. “And how many you need, we’ve got five.”

The scrutiny will come at a time when HBCUS have fewer proponents in the state’s political leadership, with Democratic members who traditionally served as the boosters and defenders of the schools now out of power. All but three of the 32 current Board of Governors are white, and no members attended any of North Carolina’s five public HBCUs.

Another campus at risk may be the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, a small campus on the state’s southern border with South Carolina.

Kyle Carter, the UNC-Pembroke chancellor, said he understands the need for a review by system leaders and hopes the unique value of his smaller campus is understood by the board.

UNC-Pembroke is located in a part of the state that traditionally has had some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates, and nearly 60 percent of its students are minorities.

In addition, 60 percent of last year’s graduating class were the first in their families to get college degrees, a sign that the school is providing opportunities to those that need it, said Carter, who is retiring in June.

“Before a system board begins to make decisions about right-sizing, they have to ask some questions about what is the value of an institution and what would happen if it wasn’t there,” Carter said.

In his part of the state, an area also saddled with high rates of poverty and few available jobs, it could be disastrous, he said.

“I don’t know what would happen to Robeson County if UNC-Pembroke was not here,” Carter said.

Note: This post changed from the original to reflect Gov. McCrory’s budget recommends $50 million in discretionary cuts to the UNC system, not $100 million.

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

[table id=16 /]

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.