The UNC Board of Governors has launched a review of the more than 200 centers and institutes housed at North Carolina’s public universities.
UNC board members said there is no immediate plan to eliminate or cut any of the largely research-focused institutes, which brought in $556 million in federal grants and other external funding in 2013-14.
But the legislature this year told the board to consider redirecting some state money from such centers to other UNC priorities. And a seven-member board working group was appointed to begin a review, with an eye toward making recommendations by December.
“Our charge is to review and understand the centers as they exist and really get our hands around what they’re doing, and to be sure they’re on purpose and they make sense to continue to exist,” said James Holmes Jr., who’s leading the group. “There’s no mandate to get any dollars.”
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The group will come up with criteria to analyze the centers. The vast majority aren’t likely to see changes, he said.
“The others, we’re just going to dig into and ask: are they on purpose, are they unbiased, do they fit the school’s mission?” Holmes added.
The entities have been in the crosshairs of political leaders for several years. Some politicians have been irked by the Poverty Center at UNC’s law school, led by outspoken professor Gene Nichol, who writes opinion pieces criticizing the agenda of Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican legislative majority.
In the spring, McCrory, a Republican, recommended $13 million in reductions to UNC centers and institutes. The final state budget instead directed the UNC board to consider reducing state dollars for centers, institutes, speaker series and other “nonacademic” activities, and reallocating the money to two other priorities. It suggested moving $10 million to a trust fund for endowed professorships and/or $5 million to a systemwide strategic plan.
There are 237 centers and institutes across the UNC system, with most at the largest research campuses. UNC-Chapel Hill has 80 and N.C. State University has 48. Of the 237, 116 receive state appropriations totaling $68.9 million; 41 others receive some type of support from the state, totaling $14 million. Eighty receive no state support.
Last week, Art Pope, outgoing state budget director, brought up the issue during a presentation to the board about the state budget. He pointed out that some centers are integrated with student instruction and the academic mission. Others, are purely focused on public policy, he said, mentioning NCSU’s Institute for Emerging Issues.
That institute annually hosts the Emerging Issues Forum, a large gathering focused on a single topic. The forum was started in 1985 by former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt. This year, the forum focused on the political hot-button issue of teacher pay, but the event has also featured business-related topics such as manufacturing and biotechnology.
NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson said the institute has added a lot of value to the state over the years.
“It brings together thought leaders from around the country to focus on North Carolina issues,” he said. “That’s what I love about it.”
Overall, 65 percent of centers and institutes have research as a primary mission, while 21 are primarily focused on instruction. Many offer courses and are tied to degree programs.
They can provide a structure for scientists from different fields to work together on a common problem, such as cancer or other diseases. Such centers enhance faculty competitiveness for research grants, Woodson said.
UNC-CH’s Carolina Population Center this year received a five-year, $180-million federal grant for its work in global health. NCSU snagged a $140 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to develop advanced manufacturing processes for semiconductors. The project includes the establishment of NCSU’s Next Generation Power Electronics National Manufacturing Innovation Institute. The grant was predicated on a $2-million annual matching grant from the state.
The centers are periodically reviewed for performance and consistency with campus goals. Some aren’t permanent.
Since 2009, 70 have been discontinued, while 26 were established, according to data from the UNC system’s General Administration.
“This is sort of the normal churn,” Woodson said. “You create a center, you get the grant, you do the work, and then if the center doesn’t have a way to sustain itself, it goes away.”
Ed McMahan, a board member and former legislator, asked whether money dedicated to centers could be used for other purposes.
The answer generally is no, said UNC President Tom Ross. Most grants are restricted by government agencies or corporate contracts.
In Thursday’s discussion, no specific centers seemed to be targeted for changes or elimination. Holmes said all would be evaluated on the same criteria.
Most institutes provide a great return on investment, said John Fennebresque, chairman of the UNC board. That return is eight to one when considering outside dollars to state dollars, for all centers and institutes.
“It’s mostly good news,” Fennebresque said, “and mostly terrific for our campuses.”