Halls of Academia Facing Grim Days
From Chapel Hill to Southern Pines, a lot of state-operated colleges and universities are waiting for some mighty big and scary shoes to drop.
Because they have always taken such particular pride in the quality and distinction of their institutions of higher learning and in the effects those institutions have on the quality of life in this state, North Carolinians from all backgrounds and of all political persuasions have to view the current funding crisis with special dread.
At least most of us view the potentially deep cuts in higher education funding that way. Some Democrats profess concern that the new Republican-dominated General Assembly might not feel quite so bad about socking it to those supposed elitist liberals in the halls of academia. But we prefer not to put any stock in such theories. Surely we all recognize that we’re in this thing together, and nothing is more important to the betterment of the Tar Heel State — including its business environment — than continuing higher educational excellence.
‘Day of Reckoning’
At our own Sandhills Community College, widely recognized as one of the premier facilities of its kind on the Eastern Seaboard, normally jovial President John Dempsey took on an unusually grim tone in a recent interview when he noted that SCC is going to have to cope with a cut of at least $1 million in its budget for next year.
Other colleges could face even graver consequences of the budget squeeze. UNC President Erskine Bowles, in an address last week, even hinted that it may become necessary to shut down one of the campuses in his system. That’s pretty strong medicine. And even if things don’t get that drastic, Bowles certainly succeeded in getting everyone’s attention.
“When the president of the university is talking about closing a campus,” Dempsey said, “you know that things are serious.” He compared this situation to the one that confronted General Motors a while back in its “day of reckoning.” That merits a shudder.
A $3.5 Billion Gap
The educational pinch is a reflection of the larger emergency facing the state government as a whole, which has to close up a $3.5 billion hole in its next budget. Nearly half of that shortfall results from the expiration of $1.6 billion in federal stimulus funds. Much of the rest can be blamed on shortfalls of various taxes, mostly at the state level.
At both local and state levels, college leaders are desperately trying to find ways to trim fat without cutting into the bone by starting to lay off instructors and/or eliminate teaching positions. Here’s hoping they can succeed in that. Teachers, as Dempsey said, are “the lifeblood of the college.”
One option being seriously considered by Bowles and other university leaders is to try to reverse the longtime trend toward constant growth at certain academic venues. This might be done by encouraging some students to move along more quickly to graduation — and curbing new enrollments by a significant tightening of academic benchmarks.
Such an approach could create new problems of its own, but surely it would be preferable to shuttering entire campuses.
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