Published: April 19, 2013
By John Drescher — Executive Editor
Forgive Tom Ross if he might long for the days when he was president of Davidson College, with its 1,900 students, and living in the President’s House on that quaint, leafy campus.
Ross could walk out the front door of that stately, 1830s house, stroll a few blocks down Main Street and have an egg salad sandwich and orangeade at the Soda Shop, an iconic college town hangout that looks much the same as it did when Ross graduated from Davidson in 1972. Ross mused this week that he was in “an idyllic, perfect world of higher education … running a small, private, liberal arts college.”
Mr. President, you are not in Davidson anymore.
Ross, now president of the 220,000-student UNC system, left a simpler life at Davidson in 2010 and stepped into a new era of public education. The UNC system has been the pride of North Carolina. While it didn’t get everything it wanted, the UNC system over the years generally has been well funded.
But since 2008, when the recession kicked in, UNC’s budget has taken several hits. For the budget year that starts July 1, Gov. Pat McCrory has proposed a systemwide cut of $140 million, Ross told reporters this week.
If the UNC budget is cut, that would buck a national trend. As state revenues have rebounded, 30 states are spending more on higher education this year, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports. North Carolina’s revenues are projected to grow 3.6 percent next budget year.
War against UNC?
Some Democrats say Republicans, who now control the legislature and the governor’s office, are out to get higher ed. “These guys are intent on going to war against the public university system in this state,” W. Hodding Carter III, who worked in Jimmy Carter’s administration and now teaches in Chapel Hill, said recently.
Writing specifically about UNC-Chapel Hill, Democratic consultant Gary Pearce said a war was brewing between the campus and Republicans. “This is a fundamental social, cultural and political conflict,” Pearce wrote recently. “It is free inquiry versus free enterprise, scholars versus CEOs, free thinkers versus true believers. It is, writ large, the same battle that has gone on since Jesse Helms railed against Chapel Hill in the 1960s.”
Art Pope, McCrory’s budget director, said when total spending is included, such as for renovations and pay raises, McCrory’s budget cuts state spending for UNC by about $15 million, less than 1 percent of the UNC system’s $2.6 billion state budget. “The university is absolutely crucial to the future of the state,” he said. But he said the state has to fund other needs, too, such as the growth in Medicaid spending.
‘Battlefield … about talent’
Ross says the UNC system is vital to the state’s economic health, as least as important as roads and airports and high-speed Internet. “The economic battlefield is going to be about talent,” Ross said.
He doesn’t think legislators are out to get the state universities. But he does hear from legislators who believe there is fat to trim.
He took the UNC job partly because of the state’s historic commitment to higher education. “I hope,” he said, “that commitment is still there.”
Ross, 62, now lives in another President’s House on another beautiful street in another picturesque college town. He can take a left out of his front door, walk along Franklin Street and be seated at the lunch counter at Sutton’s Drug Store in no time. Chapel Hill is lovely this time of year – if the legislature and the governor aren’t cutting your budget.
Drescher: 919-829-4515 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @john_drescher