The Pulse

Senate budget would cut funding to UNC Law School, School of Government, fund controversial new school

By: - May 17, 2023 9:30 am

Two prominent schools at UNC-Chapel Hill would have their funding cut by millions while a controversial new school would be created and funded under the proposed Senate version of the state budget.

The budget proposal, released Monday, includes a $2.5 million cut to both the UNC School of Law and UNC School of Government in each of the next two fiscal years. Those cuts, similar to cuts proposed by the Senate in previous budget cycles, didn’t appear in the House version of the budget. A compromise between the two chambers’ proposed budgets could be ironed out as soon as next month.

Under the Senate version of the budget, expected to see a vote this week, the newly proposed School of Civic Life and Leadership would be officially established and receive $2 million in each of the next two fiscal years. That matches the house budget proposal. Both chambers’ budget proposals fall short of the $5 million in state funds anticipated in a school planning document drafted by UNC-Chapel Hill provost Chris Clemens. The provost’s plan anticipated state funding would be matched by unnamed private donors. With or without the private funding match, the House and Senate budget bills say if state funding is insufficient to establish the school, the university itself “shall expend sufficient additional funds to achieve that purpose.”

The new school, which has been in the planning stages for years, has been described by some of its architects, supporters and political appointees on the UNC Board of Governors and  variously as a “conservative center” for UNC-Chapel Hill and an attempt to “level the playing field” at a university they believe is ideologically dominated by the political left. It has been strongly opposed by students, faculty and alumni who object to both those aims and the process by which it has been  outside of the usual campus-based, faculty-led process for creating a new school.

That conflict recently came to head when Bell Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, sent an inquiry letter to UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz regarding student, faculty and alumni concerns over the proposed establishment of a School of Civic Life and Leadership.

Wheelan’s letter and public comments about the concern led to a strongly worded letter from eight congressional Republicans from North Carolina, suggesting Wheelan and the accrediting agency were misinformed about the school and its purpose.

Republican lawmakers then filed Senate Bill 680, which would dramatically change the way universities within the UNC System and the state’s community colleges are accredited.

The bill, which counts among its primary sponsors state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, would compel UNC campuses and community colleges to change their accrediting agency each cycle. It would also allow universities and community colleges to bring a civil action against “any person who makes a false statement to the accrediting agency of the constituent institution” — a provision critics say could chill even legitimate complaints.

Dr. Holden Thorp, the former chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill who now serves as editor-in-chief of Science magazine, said it seems clear why accreditation has suddenly become an issue.

Political leaders want to increase their own power over universities and that of their political appointees, Thorp said in a roundtable discussion on the issue last week, and have increasingly rejected the long-held academic tradition of sharing governance with administrators, faculty and students.

“And so, you’re seeing around the country — Florida, Texas, North Carolina and probably some other places — politicians wanting to have more influence over the details of universities,” Thorp said. “And they see these accreditors as a barrier to doing that.”

The current conflicts are just the latest example of tensions between the universities, Republican lawmakers and their political appointees on the governing boards of the UNC system and its constituent universities. The UNC law school has frequently been the target of budget cuts, both proposed and realized. In 2017 the school’s budget was cut by $500,000 the same year the UNC Board of Governors barred the school’s Center for Civil Rights from litigating or giving legal assistance to clients. The center was privately funded, but board members — all of whom are appointed by state lawmakers — said the center shouldn’t be involved in aiding citizens in suing local or state governments.

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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.