RALEIGH — Each time they raise tuition, University of North Carolina officials talk about low tuition being a priority.
Then they talk about avoiding damage to the state’s 16 public universities as they face more budget cutting.
They don’t talk much about salaries, unless tossing out an anecdote of some renowned professor on his or her way out of town, allegedly because a North Carolina school could no longer offer a competitive wage.
Once again, UNC officials have responded to the state’s budget woes by jacking up tuition. The UNC Board of Governors recently approved tuition and fee hikes that will raise costs by an average of $401 a year for in-state undergraduates.
Also on the list of possibilities: a legislative-sponsored tuition hike to raise those costs even higher.
The latest increases come a year after the Board of Governors approved average increases of $200, followed by a state budget provision that allowed universities to tack on another $750 increase. At the state’s flagship, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tuition and fees rose $1,046, or 18.6 percent.
Just as in the past recession, tuition is poised to rise four or five times the rate of inflation.
Talk about low tuition is just that: talk, chatter. Low tuition is no longer a priority by anyone in a political leadership position in North Carolina.
While tuition has been rising faster than inflation, so too have university salaries. Among tenured faculty, most UNC system schools have seen average salaries rising faster than inflation during the same decade that whopping tuition hikes were imposed on students.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, full professors were paid an average of $143,000 annually in 2009-10, according to an American Association of University Professors survey. That average pay is higher than at private Wake Forest University and Davidson University, with only Duke University, where tenured faculty average $160,800, paying more among North Carolina universities.
In 2000-01, the average pay at UNC-Chapel Hill was $100,900, which when adjusted for inflation comes to $127,769 in today’s dollars.
The pay at UNC-Chapel Hill, as well as the $115,100 average at N.C. State University, is partly a result of the research and research grants generated by the tenured faculty at those schools. If the schools want to keep the research grants coming, they have to pay the professors who bring them.
But even at schools where research plays a smaller role — Appalachian State University, Winston Salem State University, Fayetteville State University, UNC-Wilmington — tenured faculty saw increases above inflation during the decade.
Tenured faculty at those schools average between $90,000 and $100,000 in annual salary.
Obviously, keeping quality faculty and maintaining quality institutions require paying professors competitive wages.
But continuing to ask students and their parents to shoulder the financial burden in tough times can’t be sustained.
Universities have to get serious about reining in costs, going beyond canceling a few outdated degree programs. If a salary freeze is part of the answer, so be it.
Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.