The Future of the UNC System: should a campus be closed?

This is the third in a series about the Future of the UNC System. Past posts:

In a political/media sense, the debate seems to be boiling down to whether a campus or campuses (of the 16 colleges, 1 high school) in the UNC System should be closed. During the budget-crisis-driven cuts of the recession, Erskine Bowles, then President of the overall UNC System said that if the General Assembly continued to make cuts, that the system would be forced to consider whether it made more sense to eliminate one or more campuses, instead of cutting them all by large amounts. Many interpreted this as a ‘shock therapy’ of sorts to dissuade the General Assembly from further cuts. In the current debate, some Republicans are saying that we need to consider eliminating a campus or two, and that Erskine noting it as an option proves it is a bipartisan notion.

Erskine Bowles can speak for himself about what he meant then.

For me, the debate about the funding level of the UNC system and whatever considerations flow from that need to be informed by the answers to some basic questions first. Here I pose a few of the key questions, without providing an answer.

  • How many undergraduate credentialed students should the UNC system produce each year?
  • What is the value to the state of undergraduates who earn degrees from research as opposed to more teaching-focused universities?
  • How many professional students (Medicine, Dentistry, Law, Nursing, etc.) should the system graduate per year?
  • How many doctorally-trained (non professional; Ph.D.) students should the system graduate per year?
  • What is the relative importance to the State of undergraduate v. professional v. doctoral education?
  • How do we as a State value the research that is produced in UNC system schools?
  • What should the ‘service’ component of a faculty members job description look like? How does this differ for land grant versus other UNC System schools (if at all)?

In the end, we have to decide whether our production of students, research and service is going to stay steady as projected, or increase or decrease. Once that general decision is made (that requires taking all the questions above seriously and many more) then you can have the ‘close a campus v. cut them all debate.’ Or maybe we should invest more.

These are big questions that are tremendously important. I know that people within the UNC System think about them and have plans and projections. Somehow, we need to have a meaningful, statewide conversation about these issues. The duly elected General Assembly holds the purse strings for the funding of the UNC System, which is as it should be. It is quite possible they are not the best body to answer the questions above (and the myriad detailed questions below these). However, they will have to appropriate the money to fund whatever system we will have going forward.

We need a process that explicitly states resources available and then asks the University system to work within that, making clear what is lost by lowered levels of spending, or what could be gained from increases. This sort of marginal analysis is key to identifying the appropriate level of investment. Give and take is required, and the case will have to be made that investments in the UNC system have been, and are worth it going ahead. The last step (funding) is rightly the General Assembly’s alone. However, playing this out blow by blow in an overtly partisan fashion which seems to be where we are headed is bad for our State.

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy at Duke University (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute). I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy, and currently serve as Chair of Duke's University Priorities Committee (UPC). My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

One Response to The Future of the UNC System: should a campus be closed?

  1. Nancy Peterson says:

    Some campuses that are ineffective and not producing real return on taxpayers’ dollar should be cut, and the resources should be put to other more effective schools. For instance, the UNC System has been cutting Fayetteville State University’s budget in recent years, and appears to continue to cut the budget in 2013-2014, e.g.: “Fayetteville State University could see cuts of 5 to 6 percent”
    http://fayobserver.com/articles/2013/03/29/1246874

    FSU is ranked 436 (out of all 437 public universities) in terms of Return-On-Investment across the country. These statistics tell how well FSU is doing in preparing its students for the workforce. Please check this:
    http://www.payscale.com/research/US/School=Fayetteville_State_University/Salary

    FSU’s endowment is ranked the lowest among all the NC universities, as listed on this web page, which says: “The smallest endowment was at Fayetteville State University …”:
    http://www.carolinapublicpress.org/1507/endowments-are-on-the-rise-among-north-carolina’s-higher-education-institutions

    While endowment amount may not reflect a school’s current performance, it does show the ability and willingness that alumni and stakeholders would like to invest in this university, and the impression that people have on this school’s future.

    FSU has a long history of educating students, but its enrollment has been steadily declining (down below to about 5700 now) and shows sign of continual decline. It is producing extremely low ROI for students. Stakeholders and alumni are not willing or not able to invest on its future. While it may be painful to close a long-established school, it could help increase the overall quality of college education for the entire state. Ineffective organizations should and will be removed in the society — think about Blockbuster, Circuit City, and Kodak. It is true that removing a campus could be painful in the short term especially to those who belong to the community.

    The State of North Carolina should make its education system work better for all its residents and other stakeholders. Therefore, it is important to carefully allocated limited resources to universities. Cutting ineffective schools will definitely strengthen the higher education of the state of North Carolina, producing more and better college graduates and produce higher ROI in the long run.

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