UNC BOG chairman explains decision to close centers

The University of North Carolina Board of Governors is committed to ensuring North Carolina has the best public university system in America. North Carolinians have good reason to be proud. UNC educates 220,000 students on 17 campuses. Our faculty, staff and students are engaged in research, scholarship and service that elevate the well-being of their communities and the state. We regularly rank atop the Kiplinger, U.S. News & World Report and other lists of universities that provide the best education and best value.

The board also recognizes many forces are transforming higher education. Technology is creating entirely new models of teaching and learning. Demographic shifts are creating new kinds of students, just as new workforce needs are requiring different skills. New funding sources and renewed investment are needed to reduce reliance on tuition, which is squeezing family budgets.

To help prepare UNC for this challenging future, one of the board’s important roles is to continually review the cost, value and effectiveness of the system’s programs and policies – a role we’ve played throughout our existence, most recently in reviewing our schools of education as well as our financial aid criteria.

We also have just completed a comprehensive review of all UNC research centers and institutes – a task first recommended several years ago by former UNC President Erskine Bowles and followed by a directive last year from the NC General Assembly.

Over the last five months, a committee of our board reviewed all 240 centers associated with the university system in an open and transparent process. We applied the same fact-based criteria to each center to evaluate the cost, financial sustainability, interdisciplinary reach and value to UNC.

Overall, we came away incredibly impressed with the value of UNC’s centers and institutes, which conduct important research ranging from the study of new forms of energy to emerging economic trends. We are indebted to the many faculty members, students and administrators who guide our centers.

Our review validated the work of 207 centers and recommended improvements for 13. Eight other centers chose to discontinue their work, and nine focused on marine sciences are undergoing a separate review. In one case, we recommended increasing resources, adding sexual-abuse counselors to the Carolina Women’s Center.

Of all 240 centers, the board voted unanimously to discontinue three centers – all with very limited resources and narrow scopes. They are East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity, NC Central’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. The Center on Poverty has been the primary focus of media attention in recent weeks.

First, let me emphasize the Board of Governors continues to believe reducing poverty is a crucial need in North Carolina. We believe the university must remain actively engaged in creating jobs and opportunity for everyone, and in working to alleviate poverty among our fellow North Carolinians. Indeed, other parts of the university system are actively engaged in combatting poverty, including the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work and Kenan-Flagler School of Business, and we encourage continuing to increase and coordinate our efforts.

However, after careful review of the Center on Poverty – which included an opportunity for the center director to fully describe its work – the board concluded the center was unable to demonstrate any appreciable impact on the issue of poverty. We also felt the center did not enhance the educational mission of the university, did not work across disciplines to effect change and did not have the financial support to sustain it – the same criteria used to evaluate all 240 centers.

We believe our review of university centers shows the overwhelming majority play a critical role in supporting the mission of UNC. Looking forward, we believe individual campuses in the UNC system ought to take a more active role and are best positioned to manage the funding of their centers and to be accountable for their work. Our goal is simply to establish a consistent process for creating and evaluating UNC centers to ensure they are contributing to our collective goal of preparing our great university system for the changes and challenges of the future.

John Fennebresque is chairman of the Board of Governors, a Charlotte lawyer and UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus.