As student protesters watched Wednesday, a UNC Board of Governors panel questioned leaders of more than a dozen university centers and institutes, who defended their research and community work as a valuable service to North Carolina.
From the tiny Cherokee Center near Western Carolina University to the broad-based Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University, center leaders gave short presentations on their structure, funding and contributions.
The presentations will continue Thursday with seven centers from East Carolina University and nine from UNC-Chapel Hill, including the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, which has riled some conservative politicians.
Students quietly demonstrated Wednesday, holding posters with slogans such as “Centers matter because the people they serve matter” and “Dear BOG, Why are marginalized groups a target?”
There are no foregone conclusions as a Board of Governors committee reviews 34 centers and institutes, its members say.
“I think a lot of people have looked at this process as an effort to terminate centers, which is not where it started and not where it is,” said James Holmes Jr., leader of the board working group.
The panel started looking at 240 centers, and most have been validated and kept intact. Of the remaining 34, seven may be dismantled by the campuses after an internal review. That leaves 27, which are getting a critical look by the board.
Termination of the centers isn’t the only option, Holmes said. The centers could be left as they are, or they could be redirected in some way, with state funding repurposed.
Samantha Espada, a UNC-CH student from Westchester, N.Y., said the centers play an important role in helping solve societal problems.
“I just don’t want you guys to forget about that when we’re thinking about cutting these programs or cutting funding to any of these, because they do so much for our state and our students and our communities,” Escada said. “Without them, it really deteriorates the quality of life in the state. Most of these centers cannot be summed up in monetary value.”
Some of the centers have tiny budgets with little or no state support. Others scrape by with foundation support or small research grants.
The Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina in Cullowhee, for example, had less than $20,000 in state funding in 2013-14. The institute involved 550 students in its work last year, which included surveys and park projects for small towns in the region.
At N.C. Central University in Durham, the Juvenile Justice Institute works on issues related to youth violence and the school-to-prison pipeline. It received nearly $170,000 in state appropriation in 2013-14, and almost $300,000 in outside funding.
“I see our institute and many of the other institutes as a bridge into the community. It allows the university to really have impact in terms of what happens in the community,” said Arnold Dennis, director of the Juvenile Justice Institute. “We take the brainpower of the university and apply it to problems that communities have difficulty getting answers to.”
The Institute for Emerging Issues at NCSU is probably the most high-profile entity being reviewed. It grew out of the Emerging Issues Forum, started in 1985 by former Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, who wanted to tackle big issues facing North Carolina leaders. Each year, the institute hosts a large forum of thought leaders to take on a specific issue, such as advanced manufacturing in the state or last year, the teaching profession.
“Our focus is laser-like on this question of economic competitiveness,” said its director, Anita Brown-Graham, “and we really bring that focus coming straight from N.C. State’s traditional and continued mission as a land-grant university.”
The Institute for Emerging Issues received $750,000 in state funding last year, along with $3.6 million in grants and foundation support.
“It is a very well-managed and very important institute,” said Doyle Parrish, a board member. “I think the reason that you’re here is because this committee is charged with a mission. Our mission is to see that the resources that the state allocates to our centers and institutes are giving us the appropriate return and also are equitable.”
Most of the presenters were asked why their center needed to be a separate entity and whether it could operate within an academic department or outside the university system altogether.
One board member praised a couple of centers, including the Institute for Emerging Issues, for offering political balance at their events.
“I think it’s important for a public university to solicit – not just take – but go out and get those different viewpoints and put those different viewpoints on stage for the public to see and debate issues,” said Steven Long. “That’s what benefits the public, when you’re showing two sides, or more sides, to an issue.”
‘No political bias’
Some have suggested that the Republican-dominated legislature would like to eliminate university centers that have a political focus or a left-leaning bent.
UNC-CH’s poverty center, originally linked to former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, is led by law professor Gene Nichol, who has written newspaper opinion columns critical of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican legislature. The poverty center may face tough questions Thursday.
Holmes has said there’s no political agenda to the review.
“There’s been no political bias,” he said. “We’re here to do a job for the entire system, not based on any political position.”