Commentary

Kirk Ross: Something worrisome this way comes

November 22, 2013 

A few years back I was on the phone with a high-ranking committee chair. We were discussing the state budget and the impact on the university.

The person on the other end of the line was a courtly individual, rarely uncomposed, but the conversation had shifted from numbers and percentages to a move by a rogue group of senators who wanted the legislature to have a bigger say over the teaching mission of the university and even the content of what it could teach.

“When I saw him coming down the hall this morning,” the esteemed legislator said of his colleague, “I just wanted to punch him in the face.”

He wasn’t kidding.

Over the years, I’ve watched the machinations of the General Assembly cause good people to compromise over all kinds of things, but when it came to defending the academic integrity of the university system and, specifically Carolina and State, people would go to the mat.

That era is over. Done. The university still has its staunch defenders in the General Assembly, but they are no longer a reliable majority. And if you think this legislature, which has proven hell-bent to “reform” every status quo in the realm, is going to give the university a pass for old times sake, you are sorely mistaken.

If you’re in the university administration, you are rightly paranoid. They’re coming for you, for your money and your autonomy.

There’s no clear-cut plan yet for how to “reform” the university system, but if you’ve watched how other parts of state government have been restructured, there are some clues as to how things might unfold.

Already, an ideological groundwork is being laid by right-leaning think tanks, which have a willing audience in the governor who is on record as calling some liberal arts worthless and has pushed for stronger university and business ties.

The worrisome undertone to these arguments imply that in the name of efficiency – the term will probably be “streamlining” – departments declared frivolous will have to go or be downsized and absorbed.

Another global battle is looming over the use of federal grant funds.

The state budget director, the same guy whose family money helped start the above-mentioned think tanks, has a long running interest in the use of overhead receipts, also known as facilities and administration or F&A funds, from federal grants.

Federal grants are the lifeblood of the system’s graduate schools, particularly the flagships. The overhead funds, more than $200 million annually, are used throughout the system as a key source of funding. They do a lot more than just keep the lights on; more than 40 percent cover personnel costs.

Last year, the state started reconfiguring its formula for funding repairs and renovations, dropping the university system’s share to address a long backlog of key repairs in other state government facilities. (That nasty-smelling bathroom on the second floor of the Executive Mansion for example.) Part of the argument for the change was that the university system should use more of its F&A money.

Expect not just that trend to continue, but prepare for an overhaul of rules on how the overhead funds are used and, possibly, who decides how to spend them. This could have a big impact here at home since almost 70 percent of these funds go to UNC-Chapel Hill.

It’s not hard to look at the list of things the legislature and the McCrory administration have overhauled and the magnitude of those changes and see something coming, and soon, to a university near you.

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at kmr@rossalmanac.com.

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