Rob Christensen

UNC is losing ground in budget and reputation. Whose fault is that?

UNC’s Old Well and South Building, April 26, 2016 in Chapel Hill, NC.
UNC’s Old Well and South Building, April 26, 2016 in Chapel Hill, NC. News & Observer file photo

There are signs that the University of North Carolina system, for decades the state’s pride and joy, has been losing ground.

The legislature recently passed a $2.8 billion budget for the UNC system, barely an improvement over the $2.6 billion budget of a decade ago.

In real, inflation-adjusted dollars, UNC has absorbed a double-digit cut in state appropriations during the past decade.

That is perhaps why UNC’s reputation has begun to slip. Ten years ago, UNC-Chapel Hill was rated the 27th best university in the country by U.S. News and World Report. Most recently it was rated 30th. A decade ago, N.C. State University in Raleigh was rated the 81st best institution of higher learning in the country by the magazine. Most recently it was rated 92nd.

These ratings are far from perfect measurements, but nevertheless they are not encouraging trend lines.

These universities, along with Duke University, the private institution in Durham, provided the economic engine for the Research Triangle that has helped prevent North Carolina from landing in the ditch as such traditional industries as textile, furniture and tobacco have faltered.

Nearly every CEO who flies into the area for a new economic announcement cites the area’s highly trained workforce and universities as reasons why they are expanding here.

The decline in funding at UNC has bipartisan roots. The decline in UNC appropriations began during the Great Recession when Democrats controlled the legislature and Democrat Bev Perdue was governor.

But since the economic recovery, the UNC system has not rebounded financially under the Republicans. The tax revenues have been in the state coffers, but the GOP’s legislative priority has been tax cuts.

Last week, the Pew Research Center published a national survey that found Republican support for college and universities had sharply dropped. The survey found that while 54 percent of Republicans agreed that “colleges and universities had a positive impact on the way things were going in the country’’ in 2015, the majority now believes the opposite, with 58 percent saying such institutions negatively impact the state of the union.

The poll does not provide information on the reasons for the shift, but a good guess is that it has to do with heavy publicity on conservative news outlets and social media about free speech disputes on college campuses and about perceived disagreements about political correctness in higher education.

I would not argue that the Republican legislative leadership has been anti-higher education. They have approved modest budget increases and they placed a $2 billion bond issue on last fall’s ballot – approved by the voters – in which two thirds went for higher education.

It would be difficult to find a bigger champion of UNC than Fred Eshelman, a Wilmington pharmaceutical executive and a major conservative donor, who has given at least $138 million to the UNC pharmacy school. He is hardly the only Republican who has shown his support.

As Christopher R. Marsicano wrote this month in Inside Higher Education, Republicans may be skeptical of higher education in general, but they like their alma maters.

He cited polls by Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh firm with Democratic ties, which found that 73 percent of all North Carolina voters expressed a preference among colleges and universities in the state with about one third supporting the Tar Heels of Carolina, 20 percent backing the Duke Blue Devils, 16 percent supporting N.C. State and 5 percent backing the Wake Forest Deacon Demons.

The PPP survey found that 78 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters and 66 percent of Donald Trump supporters backed one of those four teams. The poll found that such support transcends partisan politics.

As Marsicano noted, when the NCAA delivered an ultimatum for North Carolina to repeal House Bill 2 or face a long-term ban on championships being held in the state, the two political parties quickly reached a compromise.

But backing team sports is one thing, and properly financing the university system is something else.

It it hard to find champions of higher education in today’s Republican ranks that match such former Democratic leaders as Senate president pro tempore Marc Basnight or House Speaker Joe Hackney.

The Republicans have taken political control of the UNC system, naming an all-GOP Board of Governors, which brought in a prominent national Republican figure, former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, as the new president. All of this seems to me to be politics as usual. You win elections, you get the keys to the castle.

But Republicans have also sought to cut the UNC law school’s budget, go after law professor Gene Nichol and harass the Center for Civil Rights.

A proposed ban on litigation by the UNC Center for Civil Rights has drawn heavy opposition from students, faculty, alumni and others, who say such a prohibition would hurt the university’s teaching, research and public service missions.

The legislature seems more concerned about those ideological side shows than how to protect the state’s crown jewels which generations of North Carolinians have handed down to it for safe keeping.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was extensively investigated by the NCAA for a system of fake classes taken by thousands of students, roughly half of them athletes, that spanned three decades.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532; robc@newsobserver.com

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