State News

Universities on block for budget ax

Posted January 25, 2011 4:14 p.m. EST
Updated January 25, 2011 6:55 p.m. EST

— North Carolina lawmakers will consider slashing the ranks of university professors and raising college tuition during the General Assembly session that begins Wednesday, overshadowed by a budget crisis that could eliminate some degree programs.

Republicans taking charge of the state's budget for the first time since the 19th century are promising deep cuts to close a projected $3.7 billion gap. The $2.7 billion total the state budgeted last year to run the University of North Carolina's 17 campuses isn't off limits, said expected Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.

"For anyone to suggest that any part of the state budget is going to be immune from consideration for reductions, they're not looking at the situation in a realistic fashion," Berger said this week.

Some $620 million in state funds were cut in the past four years and mostly took a toll on administration, so further trims will be felt by students, said Jeff Davies, the UNC system's top operating officer.

"We are seeing more pain on the academic side of the house," Davies said Tuesday, adding that legislators have a tremendous task ahead to balance the state budget now at $19 billion. "This is the most difficult economy in my lifetime."

Deciding where layoffs among the university system's 47,000 workers statewide fall will be determined in the months ahead, Berger said. Even the $64 million expected from not-yet-finalized tuition increases of up to 6.5 percent for the next academic year is not safe: The money could be taken to pay for other programs.

"The level of concern, the level of anxiety about jobs, about benefits, I've never seen it this high," said Mary O'Neill, an accounts manager in the cashier's office of North Carolina State University.

Universities have projected that a 10 percent budget cut would mean eliminating 2,000 positions, half of them faculty members, along with 6,400 fewer course sections. Campus library hours, tutoring and advising also likely would be reduced. The UNC School of the Arts would have to examine closing its film school.

"When they talk about estimates of 15,000 state employees losing their jobs, the only thing that's going to do is put North Carolina's economy in a death spiral," said Dana Cope, president of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

Former UNC President, Erskine Bowles commented last fall that it might be smarter to close an entire campus than chip away at every university if North Carolina's economic health doesn't improve soon.

Bowles' successor, Tom Ross, ordered a study days after taking office this month to find permanent savings by finding duplication in academic programs. Some campuses might lose programs if they are offered at several other locations. Similar programs at geographically close campuses might be combined under one institution.

The review is expected to take time because the campuses offer hundreds of programs. For example, a dozen UNC campuses in addition to the School of the Arts offer 22 bachelor's degree programs in music, music performance, music industry studies, music business, musical theater and music technology.

Gov. Beverly Perdue said Tuesday that, even with cuts, she plans to protect front-line state workers, teachers and services. She said she wouldn't rule out extending temporary taxes scheduled to expire this year to cover more than a third of the $3.7 billion shortfall.

"I am not going to be the one who puts 50 kids in a classroom. It's wrong for children," Perdue said.

She had previously said she was inclined to let the taxes expire, and Republican lawmakers said Tuesday that they plan to hold her to that stance.

"We made a promise to the voters that the taxes needed to (end) – that hundreds of millions of dollars needed to get back into the private sector – and that's a promise we'll fulfill," incoming House Speaker Thom Tillis said.

Perdue also asked lawmakers for more authority to cut spending now to ease the blow once the new fiscal year starts in July. GOP leaders said they plan to do that to a degree.

The drive to get leaner was forced on industries years ago, and the state's public universities may benefit from the process, said Sanjeev Deshmukh of Greensboro, a parent with two children attending the schools.

"Maybe removing some money from it may be better for education," said Deshmukh, whose son is an Appalachian State University sophomore and daughter is a UNC-Chapel Hill senior. "Hopefully, we'll come out of it with the right solution. Change is always painful."

Even with likely tuition increases, North Carolina universities are a bargain, Deshmukh said. Appalachian State's undergraduate tuition and fees are $5,174 this year, while UNC-Chapel Hill is charging $6,488.

Tuition and fees are expected to continue rising in the coming years, Davies and others said.

But a 6.5 percent limit on tuition increases mean students likely won't make up for state spending cuts. In previous recessions in the early 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, undergraduate resident tuition jumped by 20 percent or more in the worst year.

"I see the economy continuing to remain challenging for the next couple, three, years," Davies said.

The likelihood of tuition increases worries Tarini Parti, a UNC-Chapel Hill junior majoring in journalism and political science.

"If tuition goes up, it's going to be hard to pay for school for students like me who depend on grants for financial aid," said Parti, 20, of Wilson, who is also an editor on the campus newspaper. "The (legislative) session is obviously going to be really important for the university system."

O'Neill said she hopes to be considered in the political battle of priorities over cuts, revenue and restructuring state government.

"We're not just state employees. We're your citizens, and we're the voters, and we're the taxpayers," she said.