Some classrooms at UNC-Chapel Hill’s medical school resemble a 1970s-era high school chemistry lab – old-fashioned lab stations, chalkboards on the wall, sinks obsolete.
Leaders at the university say this is no place to train roughly half the state’s doctors, and they hope voters will agree on March 15.
On the primary ballot, North Carolina voters will be asked to vote yes or no on a proposal to allow the state to borrow $2 billion – with two-thirds going to the state’s public universities and community colleges. The rest would be spent on water and sewer projects, state parks and facilities for agriculture, public safety and the National Guard.
The higher education portion of “Connect NC” – $1 billion for the UNC campuses and $350 million for community colleges – is largely focused on buildings for science, technology, engineering and mathematics and facilities to train nurses and other health care professionals.
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One project would spend $68 million toward the replacement of UNC’s Berryhill Hall, headquarters of the state’s largest medical school.
Parts of the seven-story building have been modernized over the years, such as a simulation center with high-tech mannequin patients and small rooms for practice patient exams. But mostly, the windowless classrooms and lecture halls don’t work for the way doctors are trained today, said Dr. Julie Byerley, vice dean for education and chief education officer at the school.
Medical school now isn’t about memorizing facts or passively listening to lectures, she said; it’s about applying knowledge, using technology and working in health care teams to solve problems. And that requires a more open layout, with rooms for collaboration and spaces that can be customized to fit changing instructional needs.
The school is also cramped. It has been given the green light to expand its incoming class to 230 but can’t accommodate more than 180 in Berryhill.
“In Chapel Hill, we don’t have room to produce the doctors that North Carolina needs,” Byerley said. She added that the estimated U.S. physician shortage is 60,000 now, and about one-third of practicing doctors are expected to retire by 2020.
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said the campus has nearly $1 billion worth of deferred maintenance with no way to tackle it all at once. “This gives us a chance in a high need area to get something done relatively quickly,” she said of the medical school project, which will also require $22.6 million in private fundraising.
“There’s a critical need for more doctors,” Folt said. “They need to be outstanding doctors. We’ve got the capacity to do it, and we need to really improve the facility.”
The March bond referendum comes 15 years after North Carolina voters overwhelmingly approved $3.1 billion for the UNC system and community colleges. At the time, it was the largest higher education bond issue in U.S. history. The money unleashed an astonishing construction boom, with 728 projects across the state, adding 12 million square feet of space. Campuses were transformed, with new and renovated residence halls, classroom buildings, labs, libraries and student services buildings.
In 2000, a $4 million campaign paid for advertising to sell the bonds to the public with a statistic that got the attention of parents and grandparents: Universities were expecting a 30 percent surge in students at the very time that campus buildings were deteriorating from age and neglect. The bonds were approved by more than 70 percent of voters – a margin that even surprised proponents.
This time around, the situation is different. The state is recovering from a recession, and the public may not perceive a need after the building spree of the early 2000s, especially at a time when nearly half of UNC system students are taking some instruction online. University enrollment has flattened in recent years, though some campuses, such as UNC Charlotte, have experienced huge growth. Community colleges experienced a flood of students during the economic downturn, but overall enrollment has since declined.
Gov. Pat McCrory, who advocated for the bonds, has maintained that the borrowing won’t require a tax increase. Last week, North Carolina Treasurer Janet Cowell issued a debt affordability study that showed the state had ample capacity to handle the Connect NC borrowing. Debt payments will depend on interest rates at the time of borrowing, but added debt service would range from about $30 million to $200 million annually, said Schorr Johnson, deputy chief of staff at the treasurer’s office.
Even with the added borrowing, the state’s overall tax-supported indebtedness would remain flat, because the North Carolina’s previous debt load steadily drops off after 2015.
Despite the projections of comfortable debt capacity, some in McCrory’s party aren’t sold on more borrowing. And a ballot with a competitive Republican presidential race is likely to draw a large turnout of conservative voters.
What happened to ‘fiscal responsibility?’ What happened to ‘smaller government?’
Republican Michael Speciale of New Bern
Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican, wrote a commentary in the Beaufort Observer recently declaring the campus spending a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“Wow! We have a GOP controlled state government!” he wrote. “What happened to the ‘conservative’ majority? What happened to ‘fiscal responsibility’? What happened to ‘smaller government’?”
He questioned the usage rate of university buildings and whether the community college system had such pressing needs.
“These expenditures of funds are neither necessary for the State to continue serving the people, and certainly not indicative of a group of folks who ran on less government, less spending and less waste in government,” Speciale wrote.
Robert Shackleford Jr., president of Randolph Community College, said the state’s 58 colleges are chronically underfunded. Some have heating and air systems that are 30 or 40 years old, he said.
“It’s not to put us way out ahead,” Shackleford said. “It’s to help us catch up.”
The $350 million for community colleges would be divided based on a formula, with amounts ranging from $2.7 million at Carteret to $12.6 million at Wake Tech.
For the universities, each campus would get one substantial project, though N.C. State stands to gain two – $75 million toward an engineering building and $85 million toward a plant sciences building.
The engineering building would nearly complete the College of Engineering’s move to the newer Centennial Campus. The college, with more than 10,000 students, now has three buildings on Centennial. NCSU will try to raise half the cost of the new building.
“That’s a heavy lift for us,” said John Gilligan, executive associate dean in the college. “We’re happy to do it because we’re getting the buy-in for the essential buildings that we need.”
In the past decade, undergraduate enrollment in the engineering school has increased by 22 percent, and graduate enrollment has doubled. The growth is likely to continue.
Gilligan said many undergraduates get multiple job offers upon graduation, and the college spun off six startup companies last year. “What’s really made this state, and certainly this region, is engineering know-how and computer science over the last 50 years,” he said. “We certainly have that entrepreneurial spirit, and we try to build that into our students.”
The new building is slated to house civil, construction and environmental engineering and industrial and systems engineering. Students there will be working on advanced manufacturing, rapid prototyping and transportation systems, to name a few areas. “For this new century, that’s how jobs are going to be created, is with that kind of technology,” Gilligan said. “There’s not many jobs in the old technologies, that’s for sure.”
Engineering is also the focus at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro, which already is the nation’s largest producer of African-American engineers. N.C. A&T would build its planned Engineering Research and Innovation Complex with $90 million from the bond issue.
Today’s research buildings require high-resolution equipment, magnetic resonance scanners and heavy utility support, said N.C. A&T Chancellor Harold Martin. Now, he said, there’s not enough space or adequate utilities to support that kind of work on a large scale.
Martin tweets about the bonds daily and has been hitting civic clubs with his counterparts at Guilford Tech and UNC Greensboro, making the case that the Triad’s economy stands to gain.
“The bonds this time are much more strategic,” Martin said, targeted to high-demand career areas such as engineering and nursing.
The 2000 bond referendum dramatically changed the aesthetics of A&T’s campus, Martin said, helping it compete for students. “It has driven our brand and quality,” he said.
We’ve been able to stay cutting edge in science because we’ve been able to create cutting-edge buildings.
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt
Folt said the spending from the last bonds helped UNC ramp up its research enterprise. UNC now ranks in the top 10 nationally for research grants.
“A lot of that has to do with the changing face of the campus,” she said. “We’ve been able to stay cutting edge in science because we’ve been able to create cutting-edge buildings.”
Krishan Sivaraj, a first-year UNC medical student from Cary, said his classmates almost never studied in Berryhill until recently when a few small changes were made to add whiteboards and power outlets to lounges. It led to a big increase in the number of students who use the communal study space.
“So imagine what would happen if they redid the whole building and fully renovated it?” he said.
At many medical schools, students are able to follow a professor’s slide presentation on monitors at small group tables, rather than straining to see one projection screen at the front of a large room. So, for example, in a pathology class, looking at cells would be more precise and more interactive.
“Those are the things that our building, in its current state, can’t support,” Sivaraj said. “If this bond goes through, it would be really great for med students at UNC down the road.”
Bond projects in the UNC system
A total of $1 billion would be earmarked for the UNC system’s 17 campuses. Here are the projects that would be funded:
▪ Appalachian State University: New health sciences building, $70 million
▪ East Carolina University: Life sciences and biotech building, $90 million
▪ Elizabeth City State University: Moore Hall and G.R. Little Library renovations, $13 million
▪ Fayetteville State University: Lyons Science Building renovation, $10 million
▪ N.C. Central University: New business school, $30 million
▪ N.C. State University: Engineering building, $75 million; Plant sciences building, $85 million
▪ N.C. A& T State University: Engineering building, $90 million
▪ N.C. School of Science and Math: N.C. School of Technology and Engineering in Burke County, $58 million
▪ UNC Asheville: Owen Hall addition and renovation, $21.1 million
▪ UNC-Chapel Hill: Medical education building replacement, $68 million
▪ UNC Charlotte: New sciences building, $90 million
▪ UNC Greensboro: Nursing school building, $105 million
▪ UNC Pembroke: New business school, $23 million
▪ UNC School of the Arts: Old Library and Performance Place renovations, $10.9 million
▪ UNC Wilmington: Allied health and human services/Nursing building, $66 million
▪ Western Carolina University: Sciences/STEM building, $110 million
▪ Winston-Salem State University: Sciences building, $50 million
The campaign to reach voters about the March bond referendum has been relatively quiet until now. On Sunday, TV ads begin.
Organizers had raised $1.5 million toward a goal of $3.3 million by the end of December, said Brad Crone, a consultant with the campaign. The money will be used for broadcast and digital ads and mailers. There will also be a heavy social media presence on Facebook and Twitter.
Beneficiaries of the bond are making the rounds, giving speeches to civic groups in communities around the state. A compressed schedule means supporters don’t have much time to raise money and make their case. The campaign will pick up intensity in the final three weeks before the March 15 vote.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Crone said.
The effort is being led by a bipartisan group, the Connect N.C. Committee, which is registered with the state Board of Elections. Unlike candidates’ campaign committees, a referendum committee is allowed to raise unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations. Another group, Connect NC Invest in Our Future, is registered with the secretary of state as a tax-exempt organization.
One question that has arisen is whether candidates can appear in ads for the bonds. Crone said the ads will not include candidates.
Bond projects at community colleges
A total of $350 million will be divided among the state’s 58 community colleges according to a formula. The money would be spent on new construction, repairs and renovations.
Here are totals in the Triangle:
▪ Durham Technical Community College, $4,362,997
▪ Johnston Community College, $3,701,470
▪ Wake Technical Community College, $12,595,127