No UNC universities to close for now

Early in the second week of April, senate leadership for the state of North Carolina informed the UNC Board of Directors that, despite talks to the contrary, the general assembly will be backing away from the possibility of the closure of one or more UNC system campuses.

Putting to rest fears that the Republican dominated Senate and House of Representatives would move to close at least two campuses, Senator Philip Berger, Republican member representing the twenty-sixth Senate district, stated, “There will not be such a recommendation [for university closures] for the Senate budget at this time.”

Concurring with Berger’s vocal statement, newly elected Republican Governor Pat McCrory echoed the Senator’s prediction, telling the UNC Board of Directors at a meeting at Pembroke University’s campus on April 11 that he would “not be making the suggestion of campus closure” and that he was “quite confident that it was not going to happen.”

Certain North Carolina Republicans, especially Pete Brunstetter of the 31st Senate District, which includes Winston-Salem and the surrounding area, have raised fiscal budget concerns over the amount of state spending on higher education. Their solution, while for now seemingly abandoned, was the potential shutting of two or more campuses currently included in the University of North Carolina system.

Senator Brunstetter declined to comment on his position for the purpose of this article, with his aide telling The Western Carolinian that the Senator has “made his position quite clear in interviews with other media outlets.”

In an interview with The News & Observer in Raleigh, Senator Brunstetter likened North Carolina’s higher education system to a “sacred cow” that he feels should be “subjected to the same scrutiny as everything else.”

Co-Chairman of the Appropriations/Base Budget Committee and a member of the Finance, Commerce and Redistricting Committee, Brunstetter has substantial power and influence in directing state funds away from higher education.

Despite a budget cut of $400 million to the UNC system’s budget just two years ago, state Republicans are looking to do more, with Governor McCrory’s proposed budget looking to reduce spending on the UNC system by a further $139 million over the next year.

These cuts have been met with ire by Senate Democrats, many of whom take issue with plans in the budget to cut 900 jobs out of state government positions, most of which would lay off second and third grade teaching assistants in North Carolina elementary schools, according to the Governor’s budget website. Cuts would also target state community colleges, however those cuts amount to much less than those threatening the state’s universities.

While no specific institutions were expressly mentioned by members of the General Assembly as being considered for closure, it is reasonable to assume legislators would look at criteria such as failure and drop-out rates, the size of an institution including enrollment, the area of the state served by the university, and whether the institution can be said to serve an important economic and cultural interest for the local community.

It is difficult to see how multi-million dollar university academic buildings, cafeterias and dormitories would be used if a campus were simply closed. The state is paying off many such investments over time through tuition, rent and certain fees levied onto students who use the facilities daily.

If these buildings were closed and go unused, the state would still be required to pay them off, just without the revenue provided by their use. This is all in addition to the faculty and staff layoffs that would have an additional negative impact on the economies of communities local to and often dependent upon the universities as centers of opportunity.

The drastic solution of campus closures was immediately criticized by education administrators who quickly pointed out the state’s vested interest and investments in public institutions of higher learning.

Compounding the complications of such a dire solution, each campus in the UNC system has thousands of alumni, many of who live and work in the state and are fiercely protective of the institution that they spent some of their formative years attending.

Joni Worthington, vice president for communications for UNC President Tom Ross, said the UNC system will instead focus on consolidation and cost-effective coordination of programs between campuses within the system.

“President Ross and other university leaders have been very forthcoming about the potential impact that a campus closure would have on local communities and on the effort to get more North Carolinians into higher education,” said Worthington.

According to a report published by the Hunt-Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, 34 percent of North Carolina residents of ages 25 years or older have an associate’s degree or higher. In contrast to this number, the study estimates that 59 percent of jobs in North Carolina will require some education beyond high school by 2018. A full 66 percent of North Carolinians do not have the equivalent of an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

This raises the obvious question, is now the time to be cutting back on higher education in North Carolina?

North Carolina Democrats are saying a resounding, “No.”

In a statement published online in response to Senator Brunstetter’s proposal to “go from 16 [campuses] down to 15, 14, something like that,” North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Randy Voller stated, “Senator Brunstetter’s proposal is deeply troubling… At a time like this, when our economy is on the rebound, the last thing that we should think about doing is limiting our students’ educational opportunities.”

Voller’s statement continued to say, “From the medical students of Chapel Hill, to the engineers in Raleigh, to the artists in Winston-Salem, each school provides a unique opportunity for North Carolina students, and a unique service to this state.”

While each of the 17 colleges and universities within the UNC system appear, at the time, safe from closure, there is no guarantee that House and Senate Republicans will not aim their “fiscally responsible” sights on some of North Carolina’s most cherished institutions.