Commentary

Christensen: Some Republicans ready to ease cuts to UNC system

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJune 24, 2014 

Perhaps the most important speech of North Carolina’s new Republican era was made nearly three years ago by GOP U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, arguably the state’s leading political voice of business.

Burr said that while North Carolina had the highest corporate and income taxes in the South – since slashed by the legislature – it was still winning most of the corporate and industrial recruiting battles with its neighbors.

The main reason, Burr said, was the state’s educational system, particularly its universities and community colleges.

“When an employer looks at an investment in North Carolina, they are not looking at the return next year,” Burr told a meeting of the National Federation of Independent Business at Raleigh’s Cardinal Club. “They are looking at the return 30 years from now. They need a future workforce that has skills and knowledge.”

Higher education in the state, particularly the University of North Carolina system, has suffered a huge erosion in financial support, starting with tight budgets during the recession, when the Democrats were in control. The UNC system’s annual budget has dropped from $2.7 billion in 2008-09 to $2.5 billion this year, while adding 9,000 students.

Connections weaker

North Carolina has one of the oldest university systems in the country. But it did not become one of the nation’s premier systems until the 1920s, when the state’s business community used its political muscle to convince the legislature to pour money into the consolidated university system. These bankers, textile magnates, lawyers, furniture executives and newspaper publishers saw it as a tool to modernize a poor, rural state.

These were men of the world and men of commerce – they were mostly men – who understood the importance of such things. As the years went by, many were products of the UNC system.

Today, the political connections between the UNC system and Raleigh have weakened. Many of the state’s current leaders are not products of the UNC system. And in this age of corporate mergers and consolidations, many business leaders are no longer Tar Heel natives.

Push-back on cuts

Among the state’s top political leadership, the most prominent UNC graduate is Art Pope, the governor’s budget director and a major GOP financier. Pope has pushed the university to cut costs, but there are indications that other Republicans have different ideas.

UNC President Tom Ross has praised the House and Senate budget as responsible, after criticizing cuts proposed by Gov. Pat McCrory.

Fred Eshelman, a Wilmington pharmaceutical executive who like Pope is a major GOP donor, told The N&O’s Jane Stancill that “it’s time to stop the bleeding.”

“You can say whatever you want to about the university system, and there’s waste and you don’t like their politics,” said Eshelman, a member of the UNC Board of Governors who gave $20 million to the UNC pharmacy school. “It doesn’t change the fact that, in my view, it’s the biggest economic engine we have in this state. And our state is known for this system.”

The Research Triangle Park, one of the state’s major industrial engines, would have been impossible without the universities. So would such successful businesses as SAS and Quintiles, which were started by local professors.

It took several generations of North Carolinians – in a sustained and impressive act of political will and discipline – to build the UNC system into what it is today. It is not something to be discarded lightly because of the latest political fads.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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