As the UNC system enacted a controversial tuition increase last month after a 15.6 percent state budget cut, the bad news just kept coming.
Several stalwart UNC supporters announced their retirement from the legislature - including House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, an Orange County Democrat, and Sen. Richard Stevens, a Cary Republican who co-chairs the appropriations committee. Those exits followed the departure last year of decades-long UNC champion Marc Basnight, the former Senate leader, and in 2009, Sen. Tony Rand.
In a state with a long history of generous taxpayer support for higher education, people began to wonder: Who will now speak up for the university in the halls of power?
The answer isn't entirely clear, and the legislature is headed for even more turnover with this fall's election. But universities are already crafting a new message they hope will help them win friends among the unfamiliar faces.
"We cannot take for granted that people understand why we're important and why we're valuable and why it is wise to invest in us," UNC President Tom Ross said in an interview last week.
UNC campuses are emphasizing their relevance to the state's future prosperity. They are also changing the way they operate to make the most of a smaller bank account and make a case to their new bankers.
North Carolina taxpayers spent nearly $2.5 billion on the UNC system last year, about 12.5 percent of the state budget. In a period of scarce resources, there is more accountability demanded of anyone seeking state dollars, said Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the UNC Board of Governors.
"We didn't always have to explain to everyone or justify every single thing that we were doing," she said. "It's not necessarily a bad thing that we have to now, but it is a new reality. It's part of the sea change."
Two weeks ago, Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, visited UNC-Chapel Hill, where he toured a genetics facility housing thousands of mice used to study disease.
Before the economic downturn, UNC backers in the legislature created a cancer research fund for UNC-CH that grew to $50 million a year. The state fund is unusual, because most research is fueled by the federal government.
"Part of what I was interested in is how is that money being used and what's it being used for," Berger said. "I think they were interested in providing me with that information."
For the past year, members of the new Republican majority in the legislature have spent more time visiting public campuses and talking to chancellors and trustees. It's their duty to learn as much as they can, Berger said.
Apparently the session at UNC-CH was persuasive. Berger said the research money remains in the budget. And because the state's finances have improved, "I don't see why we would want to change that at this point," he added.
Educating lawmakers on the work of the university is one way for UNC leaders to win support. But they have to be willing to listen and learn, too, said Jim Woodward, who retired after 16 years as chancellor of UNC Charlotte.
"That's not so say you don't debate ... with them," Woodward said. "But it is critical that we understand, and that we not just assume going in that we are going to tell them everything that's wrong with their views. That's stupid."
Measures of success
North Carolina legislators are taking a tougher look at UNC spending at a time when there is a national focus on cost containment in higher education. In January, President Barack Obama announced plans to tether federal student aid dollars to universities that meet affordability standards.
"The inflationary problems we have seem more pronounced in higher education," Berger said. "Year after year after year, it seems that the expenditures and the costs go up, and many times out of proportion to what's going on in the larger economy."
Ross said the university is figuring out how to do things differently to be able to make progress with no significant new money on the horizon. Some of that began under former UNC President Erskine Bowles, who streamlined administrative operations, saving millions. The system also toughened admissions standards in an effort to improve graduation rates.
In the months ahead, UNC is refining performance measures for doling out money, rewarding schools that achieve their goals. The emphasis should be on degrees awarded, said Bill Daughtridge, a UNC board member and former Republican legislator.
"Instead of just saying, 'Bring them in, everybody come on in,' the real results we want to see is how many people can we graduate?" he said.
This year, UNC Pembroke was not allowed to expand its freshman class beyond current budget levels, and both UNC Greensboro and Western Carolina were restricted in their growth.
Higher admissions standards and growth limitations are significant changes that won't bear fruit immediately, Gage said.
"Fayetteville State has one of the strongest freshman classes it's ever had," she said. "You won't see the impact of that for four years. That's a challenge to convey that to the legislature because they want to see quickly, you know, 'Show me the improvement.' "
Beyond the systemwide rules, individual campuses are doing their own version of restructuring, consolidating departments and dumping some academic degree programs that are deemed unproductive.
At N.C. State University, divisions and departments are being combined, and the university is mulling the future of more than 270 academic programs that could face elimination, downsizing, or in some cases, growth. UNC-CH focused on administrative changes that sliced $50 million from its budget. N.C. Central recently announced the merger of two colleges and several academic departments, along with the elimination of five degrees, including French and sociology.
"We see that the reality that we've had here is not likely to return in the next five to eight years, maybe longer, maybe never," said Steve Ballard, chancellor at East Carolina, where the campus is studying more than 50 options for altering its academic structure. "We've tried to look at reality and say, 'Let's get ready for it, let's not be in denial here.' "
Last week, the campus wrapped up a series of forums that were emotional at times. The process is painful but healthy, said Ron Mitchelson, a professor of geography at ECU who leads a program prioritization committee.
The cuts of the last few years have been mostly unplanned, executed during a budget emergency. It's better to build a road map for consolidation that makes sense, he said.
Proving a good faith effort to lawmakers is one thing, Mitchelson said, but the reorganization is really for students.
"The last thing we want to do is keep hammering our students with more tuition and fees," Mitchelson said. "This region has a hard enough time as it is."
Alumni, others can help
Some of the savviest university advocates think the real work has to be done outside Raleigh, among them Basnight, the Manteo Democrat who stepped down last year.
"What I see now is a serious need for the university alumni, trustees and Board of Governors educating the members that represent them," Basnight said. "That does not mean emailing the members in Raleigh, or going there, but going to their homes or businesses with a full understanding of the needs and functions and purposes of their individual school.
"They can change the dynamic tomorrow, because members listen to the wishes of constituents," he added. "If they do that, they can get the resources they need. But if they sit on their butts, the cuts will occur."
Out of the ivory tower
Some university leaders have already been proselytizing to alumni and business leaders themselves.
A little more than a week ago, NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson traveled to several eastern counties to meet with alumni and local leaders and visit companies that employ NCSU grads. For part of the trip, he was joined by Ross, the system president.
Woodson makes such trips once or twice each month, speaking to chambers of commerce and Rotary clubs, encouraging alumni to give, explaining the relevance of the university and learning what the businesses and communities need from it. The UNC system had already suffered consecutive cuts in state spending when Woodson arrived, and from almost his first day, he has pushed for stronger fundraising..
In Washington, N.C., at an educational center dedicated to estuaries, Woodson stepped onstage in a small auditorium, looked out at the audience of about 50 business leaders and alumni and launched into his version of a politician's stump speech. He talked about how the university's industrial extension service has worked with small manufacturers to save or create 2,200 jobs in this fiscal year alone. He said companies spun off from NCSU in recent years have created more than nearly 7,000 jobs, not counting those at the two largest spinoffs, SAS and Cree.
Such visits are standard, but the tough climate for higher education has sharpened his message.
"I need all of the alumni excited about the university," Woodson said. "I need them contributing to us financially, but most importantly I need to have them feeling a sense of pride about the job we do in research and education. The more we're out there keeping people connected to what we do here, keeping them proud of what we do here, the more stories they're able to tell when they're in that setting with the local member of the General Assembly, in that coffee shop or whatever."
Rand, the former Democratic state senator from Fayetteville and a university backer, said support for the system is out there in all those places. He cited the $3.1 billion in higher education construction bonds that every county in North Carolina supported in 2000.
It is a time of potential peril for the system, Rand said, but many in the legislature understand that North Carolina's system of public higher education has helped it rise above other states.
"There is no issue more important," he said. "And you have to hope that each generation understands and protects those things that are irreplaceable, because you can destroy in five or six years what has taken more than 220 years to build."
Return on investment
As some make an argument about the university's role in the state's history, others point to the future and the fact that more and more jobs require a higher education degree.
In a report presented to the UNC board last month, NCSU economist Mike Walden estimated the future economic benefit and earnings of 2009 system graduates to be $6.1 billion, resulting in 52,000 jobs in the state. Out-of-state students who came to UNC campuses added about $400 million and 10,000 jobs, he said, and research brought $1.5 billion and 29,000 jobs to North Carolina in 2010-11.
Bottom line, Walden said, for every dollar the state spends on public universities, there is a return of $3.65.
The study is likely to be cited in the days and months ahead, as supporters point to the university system as an economic engine. Whether that argument gets traction is unclear.
"There's a case that can be made for that," said Berger, the Senate leader. "Whether or not the weight to be allocated to that case is still an open question. I think it's important. How important, I think, is a judgment call."
Berger gave a talk to Citizens for Higher Education, the political action committee started by wealthy UNC-CH supporters. The group gave $190,000 to candidates in the last election cycle and donated $8,000 to Berger since 2010.
The political committee also invited Berger to attend a basketball game at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill. Berger, who earned his law degree at Wake Forest University, declined.
"The new normal means there aren't going to be any slam dunks anymore," said Gage, the UNC board chairwoman. "You have to tell your story over and over, and you have to justify every penny. And that's what we'll do."