UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor faces UNC Board of Governors questions over tuition plan

By: - July 20, 2023 6:00 am
UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz (Photo: Screen grab of videostream/PBSNC.org)

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz appeared before a special meeting of the UNC System Board of Governors Wednesday to explain his plan to fully cover tuition and fees for in-state students whose families earn less than $80,000 a year.

The plan would apply only to students enrolling at UNC-Chapel Hill, not other campuses within the UNC system.

Both the plan and how Guskiewicz announced it have been strongly criticized by some members of the board of governors and the university’s own board of trustees, all of whom are political appointees of the state legislature’s Republican majority. Members have questioned the timing of the decision and an announcement from Guskiewicz that seemed to link it to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on race in college admissions. UNC-Chapel Hill and Harvard University were defendants in that federal lawsuit; the court ruled that both universities’ use of affirmative action in its admission programs were unconstitutional. Guskiewicz didn’t share his plan with either board before announcing it publicly. Nor did he explain how the plan could affect smaller campuses within the system that can’t afford to match the tuition program at Chapel Hill.

“Admittedly, we were excited about this and excited about the opportunity to announce it to our campus community, including many of whom worked tirelessly to make that opportunities reality for our students,” Guskiewicz told the board. “Our communication on the rollout could have and should have been better and for that I’m sorry. But I’m sure that you agree that this aligns with our collective priority of improving the affordability of a great education to more people of North Carolina.  And for that we should all be proud.”

“We want every student who dreams of Carolina or any of our UNC System schools to have the financial confidence to apply,” Guskiewicz said. “And I know you want this opportunity for the young people of North Carolina as well. I also know that despite our accessibility efforts, some still consider Carolina out of their reach.”

The plan was motivated by mounting concern about the affordability of college and student debt, Guskiewicz said, and the state constitution’s mandate that a university education “as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.”

Guskiewicz shared details of the plan Wednesday that had not yet been made public:

  • The university will not waive fees or tuition. Instead, it will cover them, after applying other grants and scholarships, for first-year students from North Carolina for up to eight undergraduate semesters.
  • The plan will not use any additional state funds or tuition dollars, meaning neither the system’s board of governors nor the campus board of trustees need to approve it. Its cost — estimated at between $500,000 and $600,000 per year — would be entirely paid for by private gifts designated for student scholarships from the recent Campaign for Carolina.
  • The program would help an estimated 150-200 students who don’t already qualify for similar financial aid through the university’s existing Carolina Covenant and Blue Sky Scholars programs. UNC-Chapel Hill already provides tuition and fees to nearly 5,000 North Carolina students through those programs.
  • A separate accessibility effort, announced by Guskiewicz in the same public message earlier this month, would embed five new community outreach and admissions officers in under-resourced communities in 27 of the state’s 100 counties.

“This about those families and those students across the state of North Carolina that, for whatever reason, believe that they can’t earn their path to a place like Carolina, or afford to get to Carolina, so therefore they choose not to apply,” Guskiewicz said.

The chancellor faced tough questions from board members, some of whom praised the plan and some of whom remained skeptical.

“I can understand how you might feel a little bit like Daniel in the lion’s den this morning,” said Board of Governors member Terry Hutchens. “But I want you to know the questions come from wanting to understand and not an area of hostility or in any way being opposed to what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Enrollment, outreach and competition

UNC-Chapel Hill isn’t trying to expand its enrollment, Guskiewicz said. The university isn’t looking to compete — either through its new tuition plan or recruiting program — with smaller universities within the system for students. UNC-Chapel Hill, the flagship campus, received about 63,000 applications last year and enrolled about 4,700 new students.

“We don’t have the capacity to grow significantly,” Guskiewicz said. “So that’s not the purpose of this. We have outstanding schools across the UNC system. I’m proud that we partner with most of our other system schools in ways that I think are really important. We work together as a system. And so I’m confident that this is not going to take away from opportunities to get the schools to be able to recruit.”

Board Chair Randy Ramsey and board member Phil Byers both criticized the outreach portion of the plan, though from different angles.

Byers is a western North Carolina native who says his part of the state is often overlooked. He asked why UNC-Chapel Hill isn’t recruiting potential applicants from areas west of Gaston County.

UNC Board of Governors Member Phil Byers – Photo: Joe Killian

“That leaves everything from [Interstate] 77 basically to Tennessee and Georgia, once again, out of the program,” Byers said. “And those people are closer to the capital of Georgia, Atlanta, and to the capital of Tennessee than they are to their own state capitol. Don’t we have something we can do for the mountain people?”

Guskiewicz said he’s talking with his team at the university about how to expand outreach efforts after this initial, 27-county phase.

Ramsey, who comes from eastern North Carolina, said he isn’t sure Chapel Hill should be doing outreach to recruit students from new parts of the state at all.

The UNC System has 16 campuses, Ramsey said, most smaller than UNC-Chapel Hill. Some are already struggling with enrollment issues. The system has been working to address these issues through programs like NC Promise, which offers $500-per-semester tuition at Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, UNC-Pembroke and Western Carolina University.

There are valid concerns those enrollment efforts could be muted by more students applying to UNC-Chapel Hill because of the tuition program, Ramsey said, when that campus is already turning away tens of thousands of applicants each year.

Board member Kelly Blue, a Robeson county native, agreed. “I just think it creates tension amongst our universities,” Blue said. “When you’re recruiting down in certain areas, and just the competition with smaller schools.”

A Supreme Court reaction?

Several board members took issue with the way Guskiewicz initially announced the plan in a public message that led with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision. That seemed to tie the tuition program and outreach efforts to the decision, board members said. Guskiewicz had, in a previous campus message, written the decision was “not the outcome we hoped for” and “may raise questions about our future and how we fulfill our mission and live out our values.”

Conservative board members who have praised the court’s decision and denounced the use of race in admissions questioned Guskiewicz about his linking of the events and his personal view on the ruling.

Haywood “Woody” White, a new board member who has been critical of Guskiewicz’s announcement and the program itself, quoted Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion in the case, in which Thomas said he had been struggling for 20 years to see the benefit of racial diversity.

UNC Board of Governors Member Haywood “Woody” White – Photo: Joe Killian

White asked Guskiewicz whether he agreed with that statement in light of the court’s ruling. It was an uncomfortable moment for a chancellor whose university fought to keep race as a factor in admissions — but who understands political appointees to whom he answers largely oppose it.

Guskiewicz replied that as an educator with decades of classroom experience, he has seen the difference a more diverse student body makes to all students on campus and their readiness to engage with the larger world.

“The lens by which I view this through is my experience at a place like Carolina, where those different lived experiences and a curriculum coming to life when you have students in that classroom who can contribute in a meaningful way that I think prepares our students to become active participants in our democracy,” Guskiewicz said.

“The bottom line is a decision has been made,” Guskiewicz said. “And we will abide by that decision.”

“Tuition should never be a barrier”

One member of the board had unreserved praise for Guskiewicz and UNC-Chapel Hill’s tuition plan.

Reginald Holley, one of just four Black members of the 24 voting members on the UNC Board of Governors, said the move reminded him of a speech by former North Carolina Gov. James Martin, whom he called “one of my political heroes.”

“‘As important as technology and economic growth are to our future, education is more important still,'” Holley quoted. “‘For without education, human advancement and individual achieve are limited.'”

Martin’s words were prophetic, Holley said, and he’s been proven right.

UNC Board of Governors member Reginald Holley – Photo: Joe Killian

“Every person in this room I know believes and and is committed to excellence in North Carolina’s public higher education system and believes our constitution requires that is should be free as practical,” Holley said. “Chancellor, I’m confident that we are all on the same team in this regard.”

Holley, a UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus, said he personally understands  what access to higher education means and what expanding access to it means to so many North Carolinians.

“Having grown up with meager means in the projects of Benson, North Carolina, in rural North Carolina, the education that I received at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill literally changed my life and the life of my family,” Holley said. “And I am forever grateful. For were it not for the education at the expense of so many others — financial aid, loans, etc. — I would not have the opportunity to sit around this table with people from all walks and ethnicities of life.”

Estefany Gordillo-Rivas – Photo courtesy of the UNC Association of Student Governments

“I applaud the commitment of my alma mater to provide this tuition opportunity to as many of our state citizens as may need it,” Holley said. “Because tuition should never ever be a barrier to our citizens who join the benefits of the constituent institutions.”

UNC Association of Student Governments President Estefany Gordillo-Rivas, the non-voting student representative on the board of governors, agreed with that sentiment.

“I can see both sides of the issue,” Gordillo-Rivas told NC Newsline Wednesday. “I do think there are a lot of students who may never apply to Chapel Hill because they are thinking they could never afford it. So, I think more students may apply, and have that opportunity, because of this program. I can see the concerns from other schools, other campuses. But tuition shouldn’t be that barrier that it is for a lot of students.”

What UNC-Chapel Hill program will mean for smaller campuses, like her own Western Carolina University, she said, remains to be seen.

“I think a lot of people are still going to be applying to other schools,” Gordillo-Rivas said. “There are so many schools in the system and they all have different things to offer. There isn’t one school that is for everyone. But I think this is something every school would like to do, if they could. We should be asking how we can expand this kind of opportunity.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.