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A new political world for UNC

RALEIGH — The headlines were about as incongruent as they come.

The front page of The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, blared, “Some UNC administrators want to raise faculty salaries from increased tuition revenue.”

A few days later, a headline from The News & Observer of Raleigh read: “Close an entire campus? UNC worst-cuts plan is grim.”

The accompanying article under the first headline delved into a proposal by UNC-Chapel Hill administrators to use $2.5 million from a $15 million tuition hike to raise faculty salaries. The raises would be merit-based, probably meaning that adjunct profesors and staff members can forget about them now.

As for the second headline, it flowed from the words of UNC system President Erskine Bowles, who said looming state budget cuts could force the elimination of 1,700 jobs at UNC campuses.

“If we keep having cuts, cuts, cuts, we’ll have to look at eliminating schools, campuses,” Bowles told the UNC Board of Governors. “If it went on for several years, that would be the smart decision. The unfortunate, smart decision.”

Apparently, a bit of a communication gap exists between the president’s office and the constituent university just up the hill.

Not that anyone should expect any public university in North Carolina to close anytime soon.

Bowles may be right. In the face of persistent budget-cutting for years, closing a campus in a state with 16 public universities might be the smart thing to do. The political firestorm that would result from picking which one goes makes the idea a nonstarter.

Perhaps his comments will help administrators at all 16 campuses begin to understand the reality that they now face, one that apparently hasn’t sunk in at the state’s flagship university.

The $3 billion budget gap the state faces is real. With Republicans in charge of the legislature, it’s unlikely to be closed in any shape, form or fashion with tax hikes. More importantly, the university system’s two biggest protectors at the legislature –Senate leader Marc Basnight and former Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand — are either gone or will no longer be in charge.

Your actions — including tossing around notions of pay raises — are about to come under much harsher scrutiny.

This new world of a Republican legislative majority doesn’t necessarily mean that even Bowles’ lesser prediction of 1,700 job eliminated will come to pass.

But programs seen as not central to the schools’ core missions will be targeted, a battle over the use of university research overhead recipients will likely be revived, the universities’ budget flexibility may come under fire and questions will be asked about whether the state can afford to continue to expand campus enrollments.

It’s too early to predict how the issues might be resolved. It’s not too early to say that some show of frugality by UNC officials now would help their cause later.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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