Rob Christensen

Longtime NC businessman wants to preserve UNC system

Paul Fulton of Winston-Salem is a throwback to the era when most of North Carolina’s captains of industry were home grown and deeply involved in the civic life of their state.

Fulton has headed textile giant Sara Lee (Hanes Hosiery, etc.) and Bassett Furniture Industries. In between industry jobs, Fulton was dean of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Now a vigorous 80, Fulton is seeking to preserve North Carolina’s brand: one of the nation’s best university systems since the 1920s.

He is co-chairing a group called Higher Education Works, ( which is dedicated to raising public awareness and creating grassroots support for the UNC system.

“It’s part of our DNA,’’ Fulton said in an interview. “It’s known and respected all over the country and maybe even globally.’’

The UNC system has been a powerful economic engine. It is the reason we have the Research Triangle Park. Its professors have spun off successful businesses such as SAS, the Cary-based software company with 13,000 employees, and Quintiles, the Durham-based contract research organization that employs 32,000.

Economic boost from colleges

It is a draw for companies and people who are considering moving to North Carolina. It attracts millions in research dollars. And last, but hardly least, it is an escalator for many young people trying to reach their full potential.

An independent study released in February found that state and private colleges, as well as community colleges, had a $63.5 billion economic impact in North Carolina.

“As Fred Eshelman said over the summer, you may not like the politics of it, but fundamentally it is the biggest economic driver in the state,” Fulton said.

Eshelman, a Wilmington pharmaceutical executive, is both a mega-donor to conservative causes and to UNC.

But even while North Carolina has been surging in growth, state funding for the UNC system is heading in the other direction. We’ve gone from an eight-year period where state funding for higher education rose from $1.7 billion to $2.7 billion to an eight-year period where it dropped from $2.7 billion to $2.6 billion. Gov. Pat McCrory has recommended a budget for higher education that is a 1.2 percent cut.

To help compensate for declining state funding, the schools on average have raised tuition 86 percent during the past 10 years – pushing up against the state constitutional provision that college education should be offered free to the citizens “as far as practicable.’’

North Carolina is still very supportive of higher education compared to other states and remains a financial bargain for students. But the trend lines are worrisome.

“My concern is for the future,” Fulton said. “Where are we really headed?”

Once upon a time

There was a time in North Carolina’s past when a group of the state’s top business executives could make a few calls and UNC’s budget would be repaired. But those days are long gone.

That is why Fulton has formed Higher Education Works, which is designed to build a pro-education network by using digital media.

The group is advocating for the entire 17-campus system and is non-partisan. So far, the group has gathered a social network of 60,000 people, but sees vast potential in the 800,000 UNC system graduates, 200,000 students and their families.

Fulton sees this as a long-term project that will one day evolve into an important grassroots organization.

“Our job,” Fulton said, “is to better inform and educate about the questions of, one, the value of a college degree and, two, the value of a public university for the economic aspects of it and also the social good of it.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532;

Twitter: @oldpolhack