Education

Deficit work done, Bowles wrapping up UNC tenure

Posted December 15, 2010 6:05 p.m. EST
Updated December 15, 2010 9:43 p.m. EST

— Erskine Bowles is a man who always has a tight calendar, and the past several months have been especially tough for him to schedule.

While finishing up his five-year stint as president of the University of North Carolina system, Bowles also was co-chairman of a panel put together by President Barack Obama to find ways to slash the federal deficit.

"I've been really focused on getting these two jobs done and done right," he said Wednesday during an interview with WRAL News.

Bowles and co-chairman Alan Simpson drafted a plan that included a painful mix of spending cuts and tax increases, but it failed to get enough support by members of the deficit commission two weeks ago to advance to Congress for consideration.

With that work behind him, he said, he is trying to tie up loose ends at UNC before new president Tom Ross takes over in January.

While Bowles isn't one to name his greatest achievement, he is credited with making the 17-campus system much more effective by cutting administrative costs while keeping reductions away from academics. Those moves were critical to sustaining the system during several rounds of budget cuts in recent years.

He said he thinks lawmakers could be more open to ways to save money, like streamlining state regulations to make new building projects easier, because the state continues to face tight finances.

"If we can get through some of these state regulations that inhibit us from doing things as smartly as you'd like to, then, in fact, we can do things more efficiently, more effectively," he said.

Bowles was first approached about the UNC job when he was President Bill Clinton's chief of staff in the mid-1990s. He said he felt like he couldn't leave that position and feared he would never get another chance at what he considers his dream job.

"I have always wanted to be president of this university (system). I've been real candid – this was my dream job, and I thought it had passed me by," he said.

He has tried to prepare Ross, who currently is president of Davidson College, for the tough budget times that are still ahead for the UNC system, and he said he believes Ross will work well with the new Republican-controlled legislature.

"I'm excited about Tom taking over," he said. "Clearly, he's coming in at a tough budget time. I think we are ready for it."

Bowles said he has already turned down job offers but will take the right position if it comes along. In the meantime, he said, he's excited about being able to spend more than two nights a week at his Charlotte home – a luxury he hasn't had for 19 years.

"My wife says I'll be fine in retirement on Monday. She's really worried about Tuesday," he said.