Panel looks at moving UNC system out of Chapel Hill

A steady stream of visitors and students visit the Old Well on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus on Friday, October 13, 2017.
A steady stream of visitors and students visit the Old Well on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus on Friday, October 13, 2017.

A UNC Board of Governors task force on Monday began its review of a proposal to move the UNC system’s headquarters out of Chapel Hill.

The panel asked the system staff to compile information about space needs, state-owned properties occupied by UNC and the likely costs of a move.

UNC President Margaret Spellings said a move could distract the UNC system’s General Administration staff from its goals of educational affordability, access and accountability in the public university system. She asked a series of questions about the proposal.

“Why move GA, why now?” Spellings said. “What are the advantages to the university, to our strategic plan goals and the need to educate more students better, more affordably, more rapidly and to high quality levels? ... How will the university’s work be different, will it be enhanced or strengthened and if so, in what ways?”

She added that there could be stressful impacts of such a large undertaking.

The task force was among several created by a majority of the system’s governing board last month. Other panels are looking at how the board conducts its meetings and the size and structure of Spellings’ staff. Several members had suggested that the system staff should be moved to downtown Raleigh or Research Triangle Park, in part, to distance the General Administration from the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

The system operates several buildings, including three in Chapel Hill and two in Research Triangle Park that are used by UNC-TV and the State Education Assistance Authority, an entity that coordinates financial aid programs.

It’s unclear how much a staff relocation would cost taxpayers, whether space would be leased or new buildings constructed. The system’s buildings are owned by the state and any sale would require layers of government approvals.

Board member and Cary businessman Frank Grainger said a move to downtown Raleigh isn’t feasible. Another member, Marty Kotis, a Greensboro developer, suggested that plans for light rail in the Triangle should be considered. He suggested the system could settle in Durham near N.C. Central University. Philip Byers, a member from Forest City, posed the idea of merging the UNC system, the community college system and the state’s Department of Public Instruction into one facility.

Several panel members were skeptical about the associated costs of time and money for what is essentially a “branding” problem – confusion between the UNC system and the Chapel Hill campus or concern about the two being located in the same town. Some wondered why the discussion was even happening.

Wendy Murphy, a board member from Wallace, said the only question in her mind is whether there is a suitable alternative property available. She balked at the idea of hiring a consultant to explore a move.

“I am not interested in spending any money on anything before we know we have to,” she said. “As I do these campus visits ... I am clear on what our needs are. If this isn’t something that, in the end, is going to save money and help us work together in a more efficient manner, I don’t we need anything else to talk about.”

The panel will update the full Board of Governors on the issue in November. Regardless of the skepticism, UNC board member Bill Webb said the board had mandated the review.

“Even though the costs are large and the exertion heavy,” he said, “this is what the board has voted to do.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill