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UNC system president wants to reduce required cuts

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UNC system President Tom Ross UNC system President Tom Ross
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -

The head of North Carolina's public university system said Monday another year of deep budget cuts such as those recommended by Gov. Pat McCrory could erode the system's ability to provide quality education, and he wants some relief from the General Assembly.

University of North Carolina system President Tom Ross said he's asked legislative budget writers to narrow the $143 million reduction for the coming year recommended by McCrory in his state budget proposal. The proposed cuts are on top of spending reductions approaching $400 million approved two years ago. If the cuts take effect, most of them would be determined by UNC's administrative offices and leaders of the 17 campuses.

Most of the reductions in recent years have been absorbed in areas outside of university classrooms, Ross told reporters in Raleigh. The UNC system receives about $2.6 billion of its roughly $9 billion budget directly from the state.

"We've taken some pretty severe hits," Ross said. "Then you put these cuts which are substantial on top of that and I think it begins to create real fear that it's going to erode our ability to continue to provide quality education. The reductions likely would mean offering fewer courses and employing fewer faculty members, he added.

Senate Republicans are reviewing McCrory's $20.6 billion proposal for next year and preparing to assemble and vote on their own two year budget. Their House counterparts then will offer their own version. The two chambers will seek a compromise and present it to McCrory for his likely signature.

Ross is also worried about the governor's proposal to raise out-of-state tuition next fall by 12.3 percent at six campuses — including UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University — and by 6 percent at the other campuses.

The increases would be in addition to the average 2.7 percent out-of-state tuition and fee increase already approved by the UNC Board of Governors in February. In-state students are planning for a 6.2 percent average increase.

Ross said the higher tuition could result in fewer out-of-state students returning to school or applicants going to a non-UNC system school instead. That means the system wouldn't generate the entire $54 million the governor's proposal projects.

Out-of-state students include some of the best and brightest from around the world, and many stay in the state after graduation, he said.

"This is about talent, and the university is the producer of talent," Ross said. "That's why I worry about the budget cuts because they do send a message beyond the borders about the way you value higher education in your state."

Ross said he appreciates portions of McCrory's plan that would begin carrying out a five-year strategic plan to increase the percentage of state residents with a bachelor's degree, improve academic performance and boost faculty and research in high-growth fields. The budget provides nearly $20 million next year and $44 million the following year. The plan also sets aside money for repairing UNC system buildings.

One key Senate budget-writer suggested last month the chamber would examine whether it makes sense to close or consolidate campuses. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, essentially sunk the idea for the year last week, but said he expects senators to keep talking about whether it could make sense down the road.

"I don't think it's a bad thing for people to be discussing how we can find ways to be more efficient in the university system," Berger said.

Ross said the system is already making UNC more resourceful. It's shuttered more than 300 academic programs over the past five years and is looking at consolidating decisions to determine whether a student is labeled as in-state or out-of-state and for financial aid.

Campuses are economic engines for the regions around them. Ross said closing one wouldn't produce much savings because students would transfer to other campuses, and closed campus buildings would still have to be kept up.

"I think the economics of it aren't smart for North Carolina," he said.

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