IN PRINT — OPINION: Exile on Jones Street: Carolina Perestroika

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by Kirk Ross

 

Judging from the relatively mild treatment of the UNC System over the past few years, you might have come to believe that it would be spared some of the wholesale shakeups in other entities of the state.

Unlike with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, there was no major rewrite of UNC’s mission and restructuring of divisions.

The university system’s independence also saved it from the huge turnover seen throughout the rest of state government.

Although turnover is typical when the political party of the administration changes, the General Assembly, in a gift to Gov. Pat McCrory, tripled the governor’s appointments. This resulted in more political appointees spreading throughout state government and people with years of expertise sent packing.

Meanwhile, turnover in the leadership of the UNC System has proceeded in a way more recognizable to past eras, not that that is anything to be too proud of. A seat on the Board of Governors or one of its institution’s boards of trustees is still one of the finest political plums one can bestow, and the politicking around these nominations and appointments remains one of our more soiled traditions of patronage. Although wretched, it is a system that has worked quite well for the university and has purchased a lot of breathing room at times of turbulence and tight budgets.

But that protection appears to be a lot more shaky under the new administration as evidenced by a crisply worded this-will-not-do message sent in late February to UNC leaders by State Budget Director Art Pope, who rejected outright their proposed budget.

What should be dawning on the Board of Governors and the rest of us is that the upheaval visited elsewhere in state government is now coming to a university near year you.

There have been some hints of that change, mostly in the form of occasional pronouncements from Gov. McCrory that the state’s universities should work more closely with business. What that means exactly is entirely unclear, especially since history tells us that every major industry in this state has benefited tremendously from the state’s system of higher education and the graduates and research it produces.

Pope, on the other hand, is a far easier man to read in this case. His family is one of UNC’s bigger benefactors and has a long history of interest in curriculum, calling for — and paying for — a greater focus on the influence of Western Civilization.

The think tanks and publications Pope has backed over the years have produced a steady stream of UNC-aimed derision, drawing on both the tone and talking points of the late Jesse Helms.

From his days in the legislature, Pope has also had a long-running battle with the university on the way it uses the portion of its federal grant money set aside for overhead. It is this aspect of Pope, more than all the others, that has elicited the most worry behind the scenes.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s the university wrestled control over that money — hundred of millions each year — from the legislature. Last year, in his first budget, Pope telegraphed that he plans to revisit state control of the funds. He reduced UNC’s share of the annual state repair-and-renovation appropriation, suggesting a bigger share of the federal overhead money should be used for it. And in several other nooks and crannies of the state budget he gathered up control of various state funds, fees and other revenue streams that used to pass directly to departments.

Pope made it very clear in his letter to university leaders, obtained last week by the News & Observer, that he would continue to pound the point that UNC is sitting on a mound of cash while he’s scrambling  to pay the Medicaid bills. He pointed to the schools’ various trust funds and cash balances and singled out the failure to use more of its grant funds to cover operating costs.

He also indicated that, despite the rise in the number of administration-friendly members of the Board of Governors, he’s not interested in a lot of back and forth.

“When discussing this matter with [UNC] President Ross, he stated the University had a statutory duty to present its ‘needs’ to the governor and General Assembly,” Pope wrote. “Respectfully, NC Gen. Stat. §116C-11(9)a requires the Board of Governors to submit a ‘budget,’ and not ‘needs.’”

That does not bode well for the UNC system going into a General Assembly session where legislators will be looking under the seat cushions to pay for election-year goodies.