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Saturday, July 9, 2011

The sky is not falling at UNC

Today's News & Observer in Raleigh has yet another passionate letter to the editor from a professor proclaiming that budget cuts to the University of North Carolina will irreparably harm the economic future of this state.

For readers in other states, the UNC system consists of the flagship university in Chapel Hill, 14 other universities throughout the state including NCSU in Raleigh, the UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem (undergrad and high school programs), and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham (high school only). The 58 community colleges in North Carolina are managed separately from UNC.

99% of North Carolina taxpayers believe that the UNC system is a terrific resource. Undeniably it has been a major factor in making North Carolina a comparatively progressive southern state, both socially and economically. Self-disclosure: my wife has a graduate certificate in cytotechnology from the UNC-CH School of Medicine. 

However, resounding acclaim of UNC doesn't mean that the system should be immune to budget cuts. And in the case of Chapel Hill specifically, the budget reduction is small when seen against the total revenue of the institution including research grants, gifts, and tuition.

I believe that almost every organization is strengthened by an occasional financial diet and a reexamination of spending priorities. The Episcopal parish I attend, and where I served as chair of the administrative board ("senior warden") during very difficult budget cuts in 2009, has emerged a more disciplined and more focused community. I can say the same for the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, where I served as chair of the Board of Directors in 2008. In neither case did I drive the budget reductions myself; rather, they were forced by factors outside our control. But as a leader, I was responsible for facing up to them and carrying on. Make lemonade from lemons!

Ten years hence, the UNC system will look back on the budget cuts of 2011 as a painful episode -- but the system will have learned how to do more with less, a lesson that they would likely have never learned otherwise. Some redundant or useless programs that deserved to die will have been forgotten, and the institutions will feel more directly connected to the communities in which they're located.

Letters like the one in question are hyperbolic and suggestive of fear, not rational thought. I realize it's a shock to many professors that their income streams, like my own, are dependent on the vagaries of the economy. Those impacted directly or indirectly will, unfortunately, have to plow through their own stages of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.