Guard the jewel: Go slow on downsizing the UNC system

March 25, 2013 

It appears that Hodding Carter III is channeling the late William Friday. Friday, a mentor to Carter, was the founding president of what is now the University of North Carolina system and a strong, respected leader and defender of the university system.

Responding to reports that Republican legislators are thinking about “downsizing” the UNC system, perhaps closing one or two campuses, Carter, a former assistant secretary of state and now a UNC-Chapel Hill professor, decided not to hold back. “These guys are intent on going to war against the public university system in this state,” he said. “Standing on the sidelines is not for anyone who cares about higher education.”

Indeed, Republican Sen. Pete Brunstetter of Winston-Salem believes downsizing ought to be an option. He and other GOP allies note that former system President Erskine Bowles once talked about it. But that was during a time of multibillion-dollar deficits, which is not now the case.

And even if one concedes that the UNC system might need some fine-tuning in terms of duplicate programs,this is not an issue to be brought up suddenly and then resolved in one legislative session.

Study and learn

Instead of pushing a bill through that cuts programs and perhaps even campuses, Republicans should appoint a blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission to study first whether consolidation is even a good and practical idea (there are serious questions about that) and how savings might be obtained without the drastic step of closing campuses.

The group would need two years to interview current and former UNC campus administrators, students, university officials from other states; call in some outside experts; and discuss extensively possible changes and, more importantly, the impact any changes might have on students.

Democratic Sen. Martin Nesbitt fears that won’t be the case. “The problem with (Republicans) and their approach,” he said, “is it’s never a dialogue. It’s a threat.”

There’s been evidence of that in this legislative session with issues such as Medicaid, unemployment compensation and the proposed changes in state boards and commissions. The consequences of these actions remain to be seen, but certainly people are going to be hurt by them and by the reckless hurry in which changes were made.

This is different

But the UNC system is a different animal. Each of the 17 campuses has thousands of alumni who are strong supporters and would be protective of their campuses.

Putting that consideration aside, though it would be risky for lawmakers not to consider it, the UNC system wasn’t constructed overnight with a bunch of people with Lincoln Logs. The campuses are first designed to serve the state by being all over the state, mountains to coast. And individual campuses have special missions within the goal of general education. UNC-Asheville provides a small-school, liberal arts education focused on teaching. UNC-Greensboro is strong in the arts, as is East Carolina. The UNC School of the Arts is all about film and stage. Almost every school has such a focus in at least one area.

The system, in other words, is not one-size-fits-all. Closing a campus, for example, wouldn’t necessarily send those students to another UNC school. Many might drop out, which would be a loss for them, their families and the state.

Not to mention that lawmakers haven’t even considered what they’d do with the academic buildings and dormitories, worth millions of dollars, if they closed the purpose for which they were intended.

The UNC system has its glitches from time to time, and some universities need to work harder on boosting enrollment. Yes, there may be duplication in courses that could be fixed. And the system might be able to consolidate purchasing and other related tasks in the name of efficiency. But overall, this is a model that has served the state well and provided higher education, and all the hopes that come with it, to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians. Republicans must, for a change, approach this issue with caution lights on and in no hurry.

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