CHAPEL HILL — UNC President Tom Ross has ordered a sweeping review of academics across the public university system - an attempt to become more efficient by rooting out duplication.
The exercise will be neither quick nor popular. It will challenge faculty, staff and administrators to prioritize, surrender some ground and think more broadly than has long been the custom.
But this must be done, Ross said Friday, for the university to survive what is expected to be another round of severe budget cuts next year and to create future economic stability.
"It does have some pain, and we'll have controversy," Ross said of the exercise, which will kick off in the next couple months. "Change is hard."
Ross has enlisted former UNC Charlotte Chancellor James Woodward to head up the review. Woodward, who served as interim chancellor at N.C. State University before Randy Woodson assumed that position, will start in a month or two and will eventually issue recommendations, Ross said.
The length of the study isn't clear, and Ross was wary Friday of jumping to conclusions about where duplication may lie. He and other university leaders said the exercise may not lead to mass program eliminations. Not all duplication is bad, he said.
"We probably imagine there's more unnecessary duplication than we'll probably find," said Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the UNC system's Board of Governors. "There may not be immediate savings from this. But it's the right thing to do."
Ross, a former Davidson College president, assumed the UNC system presidency Jan. 1 from Erskine Bowles, who spent five years paring down the administrative side of the university, saving money in purchasing and other off-the-radar areas.
In taking the baton, Ross turns the focus to academics and promises an approach that may be difficult for some faculty and staff. If too many campuses offer the same major, it may be eliminated in some places. Or programs offered at two or three institutions close to each other may be grouped under one umbrella. Or a program on one campus might be shut down, with its students shifted to an online equivalent offered at another university.
The task will be lengthy because campuses offer hundreds of programs. For example, UNC Charlotte alone offers 91 bachelor's degree programs, 59 master's degree programs and 18 doctoral degree programs.
Focus on strengths
Campus leaders say the introspection will be challenging.
"It's one of the hardest things for an academic institution to do," said Steve Ballard, chancellor at East Carolina University. "Do we need 15 political science departments or 15 English departments? I would argue we do. But beyond that, how much duplication do we need?"
Campuses are being encouraged to focus more clearly on their core missions and areas of strength. At N.C. Central University, those strengths include biotechnology, the sciences, health education and public administration, said Chancellor Charlie Nelms.
"I'm well-acquainted with what we do well, and I want to preserve it," Nelms said.
At UNC Charlotte, student body president Megan Smith fears her institution may lose out if it has to fight larger, older campuses for programs.
"Nothing at Charlotte is established; we're 60 years old," said Smith, a senior English major from Monroe. "For us, the idea of paring down overlapping programs is troubling. It means giving opportunities to the more established schools like Chapel Hill or [N.C.] State and taking away opportunities for other schools."
Campuses will be encouraged to work together more often, even if that means ceding turf at times. The process will likely bruise egos as departments and programs are prioritized, said Sandie Gravett, chairwoman of the UNC system's Faculty Assembly, which represents public university professors.
"You're talking about people's jobs and livelihoods," Gravett said. "There's a lot of concern, but faculty understand the budget situation we're in."
The UNC system has cut $620 million in the past four years, with more expected this year. The analysis won't save money in the short term, but it may point to new, cheaper ways of educating students. It will have to, Ross said, because those cuts won't ever come back.
"This isn't a temporary economic downturn," he said. "This is an economic restructuring."
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