NCSU tries to manage cuts

University plans mergers, layoffs

Staff WriterMarch 15, 2011 

— N.C. State University leaders will announce a major reorganization plan today that's designed to protect the university's core teaching and research missions while absorbing state budget cuts that have become annual events.

Major administrative offices will be merged by July 1 and, after a study involving faculty members, as many as three entire colleges and several academic departments could follow suit. Hundreds of low-enrollment classes and dozens of degree programs will be scrutinized with an eye toward cutting. Several high-level jobs will be slashed, including those of two vice chancellors, at least one dean and two associate vice chancellors.

The state faces a budget shortfall estimated at $2.4 billion, and NCSU leaders are bracing for a cut of as much as 15 percent - about $80 million - of their annual allocation. It would be the fifth consecutive year of cuts to state support for the university, and Chancellor Randy Woodson said it became crucial for the university to do more than simply spread the pain evenly across campus.

"As a leader of a university, you can just step back and say our budget is 10 percent lower, so it's 10 percent budget cuts to every unit," Woodson said Monday. "But in doing that, you're not really making sure that the university is being strategic, and that's what this is about, recognizing that we've got strategic goals as a university."

Woodson said NCSU wants to improve the graduation rate, increase research funding and add to the number of faculty in some areas.

"The only way we can do that in a fiscally constrained environment is to be strategic in the way we reduce the budget, and we've got to think differently about our organizational structure," he said. "That's more painful and a little more complicated than simply saying everyone cut 10 percent."

More layoffs, perhaps hundreds, are expected at NCSU this year, though the number depends more on how much state support is reduced than on the reorganization, which will reap some savings quickly but is geared more to long-term change.

Woodson said the size of the state cut will translate almost proportionally to layoffs.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you have $80 million less, and your organization is largely people-intensive, that translates to people that are going to lose their jobs," he said.

In January, as it became clear that the coming cut could be substantial, Woodson told the provost and vice chancellor for finance and business to develop a reorganization plan, and he gave them a deadline of today.

The plan they developed relies on the results of a months-long strategic planning process that was already under way.

That effort included input from nine task forces, and a draft of its results is already circulating on campus. Woodson said the looming budget cut made him decide to speed up implementation of parts of the strategic plan.

The soonest changes

The two vice chancellors whose jobs are being eliminated, James Zuiches and Thomas H. Stafford Jr, have already announced plans to retire. Zuiches is vice chancellor for extension, engagement and economic development. Stafford is vice chancellor for student affairs.

Some of the changes will take effect by July 1. They include the merger of the office of Student Affairs and the Division of Undergraduate Academic Programs.

Major changes involving academic units and programs, though, are more complicated and will require study and ideas from faculty, staff and students, Woodson said.

Among the biggest is a reorganization of the three colleges that offer the bulk of the university's science courses: Agriculture and Life Sciences, Physical and Mathematical Sciences, and Natural Resources.

Provost Warwick Arden will convene a task force to study how best to do that. The goal will be to cut the number of departments and perhaps to merge entire colleges, Woodson said.

Those colleges were picked because of the university's role as the UNC system's flagship of science and technology, and because of the pace with which science has changed, leaving current administrative structures outmoded.

"From time to time we have to say, 'OK, are we organized in the most effective and efficient way to enhance those disciplines?' And that's what this is about," Arden said.

Among them, the three colleges employ nearly 800 of the university's 2,100 faculty and have about a quarter of the university's 34,000-plus students.

The task force will be expected to report back with recommendations for fewer academic units by December. It's unclear, Woodson said, whether any or all of the three schools will be merged, or how many departments will be left.

It's crucial, Arden said, to let the faculty take a lead role in academic parts of the reorganization.

Preliminary list

The reorganization plan recommends cutting courses and degree programs that are little used or in some cases duplicated elsewhere in the UNC system.

The plan identifies 173 undergraduate courses taught in sections of fewer than 10 students, 106 graduate courses in sections of fewer than five students, and 28 undergraduate and 32 graduate degree programs that had low enrollment, few graduates or ranked low in other criteria designed to measure their importance to the school.

Several of these are in agricultural disciplines, a traditional mainstay of the university. And among the undergraduate degree programs that will go under the microscope are French language and literature, women's studies, African American/black studies, and religion/religious studies.

Arden said the list in the plan is simply a first pass to flag courses and programs for closer scrutiny. Each department will have a chance to justify its offerings.

Many of the changes outlined in the plan would happened even without another expected budget cut because they're simply good organizational practice, Arden said.

Among other things, the reorganization plan calls for collating business operations into a handful of offices, and for putting more emphasis on summer school and distance learning to make more efficient use of the university's infrastructure and to help students graduate sooner.

Arden said that such major changes were inevitable given a long-running slide in North Carolina and nationally in state funding for universities, a slide that accelerated when the economy soured.

"These are organizational efficiencies we're going to have to achieve over the coming years if we're going to be a leading, world-class university," he said. "The institutions that are going to emerge as the strongest in higher education are those that figure out how to operate more effectively and efficiently, and devote a greater percent of their resources to their core mission. And that's what we're trying to do here."

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

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