The future of the UNC System
March 23, 2013 2 Comments
The future of the University of North Carolina system (the 16 campuses) does not look bright.
In the face of the economic downturn and reduced tax revenue, difficult choices had to be made in the past and that is true going forward; Gov. McCrory’s new budget represents a roughly 8.5% reduction from the pre-recession budget of 2007-08 (per pupil spending; adjusted for inflation) for the 16 campus University system. Most states have cut even more from their higher education spending the past 5 years, and the question for each state is how to best spend/invest finite resources going forward?
For North Carolina, the UNC System is more important to the essence of our State, than average. If you want to find a bipartisan idea across the State, it is that we are not the deep South. If you go further, this notion is summed up by the question: why is North Carolina different from Alabama today? Two answers leap to the front of my mind:
- Political leadership (think Terry Sanford instead of George Wallace)
- The UNC System
The system of public Universities in this State have had a tangible impact on our people. For example, only one of my grandparents graduated from high school. But my mother and father both graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in the early 1960s and become a Pharmacist and a CPA. I then benefitted from 3 degrees from there and am now a professor at Duke.* Endless versions of the same story can be told for all of the UNC campuses.
There is a powerful intangible benefit of our University system as well. The investment in the UNC system over the latter half of the 20th Century sent a signal that our State was investing in a future based on education. The development of the Research Triangle Park and the two great public research Universities (and the private one down the way) in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area made North Carolina at first a safe, and eventually an attractive part of the South into which businesses could locate, grow and thrive. Each UNC campus has a similar story of local and regional impact. The status of a our State as ‘new South’ could be quite fragile–earned over long periods of time, but lost quickly. The wrong decisions on the future of the UNC System are about as quick a way to erode it that exists.
Tough decisions do have to be made in our State budget, and University system, of course. However, the fact that our new Governor’s first substantive comments since inauguration on the topic came in breezy form for on a nationally-syndicated political radio talk show audience doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence. The decision of the Republican-controlled General Assembly to only appoint Republicans to the Board of Governors places the future of our State University system in a similar “political first” light. And in this instance, it is not the case that the Democrats did the same thing. As anyone who understands North Carolina politics knows, there are plenty of Conservative Democrats, especially down East. I don’t think the corollary exists in the modern Republican party. Making difficult decisions about the future of our University system is hard enough. The fact that these decisions, and this future now lies within an overtly partisan atmosphere is bad for our State.
I will have some thoughts next week about how I would go about thinking through the future of the University of North Carolina system.
*for my fellow Tar Heel grads, the last part is a good thing. Trust me.