CHAPEL HILL — Year in, year out, the greatest contribution of North Carolina's public universities is sending bright and capable new graduates to communities across the state to become the next generation of leaders.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, we just graduated another 5,360 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree students. Inspired by our faculty, they are ready to help our state and world start tackling the biggest problems of our time.
That's what society needs most right now - for universities to produce the young people who can help get the economy going again. New graduates fortunate enough to have jobs most likely will not receive a to-do list. Instead, the world is calling them to come up with their own new ideas. That means trial and error - and failure - before success.
I know they are up to the task. Just like the state is in meeting the budget challenges of today and the future.
Fortunately, in good times and bad, North Carolina has made higher education a priority. We are so lucky to benefit from the foresight our state leaders had to establish this university and then to sustain the UNC system for all these years. It has served North Carolina well, and the level of investment that continues to be made is the envy of many a university president across the country.
State support for higher education led to creation of the Research Triangle Park, made possible faculty research that pumps millions of dollars from the federal government and other sourcess into our economy and led to breakthrough science that has made North Carolinians healthier and helped them lead more productive lives.
Recent state investments in health care have been particularly striking. We opened the new cancer hospital at the same time the General Assembly showed great confidence in our faculty's ability to innovate by establishing - and sustaining - the University Cancer Research Fund, which supports basic interdisciplinary research through the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the School of Medicine. That research is the key to future cures.
Our faculty have been remarkably successful in attracting federal research investments that benefit Tar Heel citizens. A new initiative brings UNC and East Carolina University researchers together to collaborate with health practitioners and community leaders in Lenoir County to tackle heart disease, the county's leading cause of death. Lenoir County is considered on the "buckle of the stroke belt" in the southeastern United States. Faculty will explore the reasons for the high rates of hypertension and cardiovascular disease, along with related issues like access to medical care or opportunities that promote good health. This is a great example of how UNC system faculty serve the public good.
As legislators begin this year's state budget process, they face tough decisions about a lot of competing needs. I hope they will continue to see the wisdom of investing in higher education.
For our part, we're working hard to do more with less and become more efficient. We've streamlined administrative functions and eliminated duplication of support functions like finance, IT and human resources in research centers and institutes. Our IT division is partnering with N.C. State University on central software for human resources and finance. In absorbing our state cuts, we protected the classroom by limiting reductions to instructional units.
But my fellow chancellors and I are concerned about protecting the quality of the education we can provide to students. The truth is a new round of significant cuts would have serious implications.
At Chapel Hill we would lose full-time faculty in positions supported by state funding. We would have fewer fixed-term faculty and graduate teaching assistants. With fewer faculty and more students, classes would grow in size. And it would take our students longer to graduate. We'd have fewer people able to provide student advising, counseling and financial aid assistance. The entire system of how we teach and support students would be affected.
We understand that resources are limited this year, and the needs of North Carolina are great. In this economy, tough choices have to be made. But now is not the time to retreat dramatically from the competitive advantage that higher education brings to North Carolina.
Holden Thorp is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.