House demurs on UNC caps

Enrollment report may be requested

Staff WriterJune 16, 2004 

The University of North Carolina system got a pass Tuesday when the state House backed off a threat to mandate caps on out-of-state students at the 16 campuses.

And, for now, the issue seems over after a months-long, often contentious debate about campus diversity and North Carolinians' right to a top-quality education.

Instead, the House seems likely to approve a resolution strongly advising the 16 campuses to give annual reports on how many out-of-state students they're letting in.

"I think we've probably got a good, mutual compromise," said Rep. Alex Warner, a Democrat from Cumberland County who pushed for legislation. "We want more students from North Carolina -- that are academically qualified -- to get into North Carolina schools."

Current rules say that no more than 18 percent of the entering freshmen at any UNC system school -- with a few limited exceptions -- can be from out of state. The idea is to preserve access for children of state taxpayers, who foot much of the universities' bills.

But some campuses -- most notably UNC-Chapel Hill -- are nearing that cap. And in the fall, the UNC system Board of Governors considered raising the level from 18 percent to 22 percent.

UNC-CH Chancellor James Moeser and others argue that the diversity of out-of-state students enriches the education of all.

After an outcry by legislators, alumni and others upset at the proposal, a committee of the Board of Governors tabled the idea indefinitely.

Still, the idea stung.

So Warner proposed legislating an 18 percent cap, taking freedom away from the Board of Governors. (The proposal would exempt the N.C. School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.)

Because this is the legislature's short session, Warner needed a joint House and Senate resolution allowing him to put his bill into play. The House was prepared to vote on that resolution Tuesday, and Warner said he had the two-thirds vote needed for it to pass.

But old voices chimed in.

In recent days, several legislators called former UNC system president and higher education icon Bill Friday for advice.

His thought was simple: Since the Board of Governors was created to run the university system, let the group do its job.

"I'm never one who believes in legislating things, because you never know when you'll need to change it," Friday said Tuesday.

There were other concerns. Warner pointed out that several historically black universities have plenty of space for out-of-state students and can benefit from their presence.

At Tuesday's House session, the resolution was sent back to the Education Committee, where it is expected to be rewritten to request annual reports from the Board of Governors.

Mark Fleming, associate vice president for state governmental affairs for the UNC system, watched from the gallery. He was pleased with the outcome.

"I think it's good news," Fleming said. "We will continue to oppose any legislation to take authority away from the board."

If the new resolution passes, the Board of Governors still will not be required to give annual reports. Rep. Bernard Allen, a Raleigh Democrat, said the UNC system would be wise to respond to the request.

"We can revisit the issue," said Allen, who spoke on the House floor Tuesday in favor of sending the resolution back to committee. "We do not want to micromanage. Conversely, if it requires it, we will do that."

Staff writer Barbara Barrett can be reached at 829-4870 or bbarrett@newsobserver.com.

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