State campuses to cut 900 jobs

Public universities get the order to streamline their administrations

Staff writerSeptember 1, 2009 

— The 16-campus UNC system expects to eliminate about 900 administrative positions this year, an acknowledgement by university leaders of job growth gone wild.

Those 900 positions and other administrative costs could account for 75 percent or more of cuts that public university campuses will be asked to make this year as the system pares $171 million from its budget, UNC system officials say.

In cutting so heavily into administrative costs, UNC system President Erskine Bowles and others say they hope to protect academics.

Bowles has warned for months that the university system could face up to 1,000 layoffs this year as a result of budget cuts. And the 900 administrative jobs he specified this week do not include positions linked to other cuts mandated by the General Assembly.

It isn't yet clear how many of those positions are filled. Since last fall, campuses have kept some positions vacant in the face of the budget shortfall.

Administrative costs on university campuses have come under scrutiny lately. Responding to an Aug. 17 News & Observer report on the swelling of administrative ranks within the UNC system, Bowles directed the chancellors of the state's public universities to focus on cuts to administration. Any further delay in doing so, he told the campus leaders, ran the risk of alienating taxpayers and legislators.

Those chancellors submitted budget-cut plans to Bowles' office Monday.

"We will NOT approve your reduction plans until we are convinced that you are focused on reducing administrative costs to the fullest extent possible," Bowles wrote in an e-mail message to the chancellors.

He met with the chancellors Monday.

While the General Assembly cut the UNC-system budget about 6 percent, campuses are cutting their spending plans 10 percent this year in anticipation of a mid-year request to return more funds to the state.

Cut in Chapel Hill

There isn't yet a campus-by-campus breakdown of expected cuts, but at some institutions, the ax is already falling.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, 300 positions have been eliminated; of those, 100 were occupied, Chancellor Holden Thorp said. Nine positions in upper management -- associate, assistant and vice chancellor posts-- were cut, Thorp added.

While there has clearly been administrative bloat, many of the positions under scrutiny have value, said McKay Coble, UNC-CH's faculty chairwoman.

"Running a university, it takes a lot of administrators," said Coble, a professor of dramatic art. "It's like putting on a [theater] production. You may have one person on stage, but it took 50 to get them there."

The term "administration" is broad. It can refer to anyone from a university chancellor to a finance officer or program director. At UNC-CH, cuts didn't focus on the rank-and-file, Thorp said.

"It goes from the top to what's being called middle management," he said. "There weren't a lot of front-line jobs being eliminated."

While conceding that some divisions and departments on his campus have grown too much, he insists that many administrative positions are critical. He points to the $716 million in research grants brought in by UNC-CH scientists last year and the $271 million in private gifts fundraisers elicited.

"We're trying to minimize, but we do need people to look after all those grants and donations," he said. "You don't really want to tell the federal government you aren't keeping track of their money. And the same for donors."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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