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Friday Interview: Prospects for UNC Budget Savings

Pope Center’s Robinson outlines areas for further legislative review

State budget writers looking for ways to save taxpayers’ dollars should continue to examine the University of North Carolina system. That’s the recommendation from the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. As the N.C. House and Senate haggled over budget details this summer, Dr. Jenna Ashley Robinson, the Pope Center’s director of outreach, discussed potential UNC budget savings with Donna Martinez for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Martinez: Some folks might be surprised to learn how much of the state’s General Fund budget actually goes to the UNC system. Tell us about it.

Robinson: Yes. About $2.5 billion, give or take, depending on the year, out of the full budget, which is close to 12 percent. It’s 11.9 percent of our operating budget that goes to the UNC system.

Martinez: Jenna, when we say the UNC system, what are we really talking about? We should be clear: We’re not talking about UNC-Chapel Hill.

Robinson: No. We’re talking about 16 UNC schools plus the School of Science and Math, which is a high school — but 16 universities.

Martinez: Now every time we do budget negotiations, all state agencies — this is just human nature — they all say, “We’re cut to the bone. We really can’t take any spending cuts. We can’t pare back.” We hear that from the UNC system as well. Is it really possible to cut their budget and not hurt that system?

Robinson: Absolutely. And the last time their budget was cut, that’s exactly what happened. They essentially eliminated a bunch of vacant positions. Many of the schools cut a couple of positions here or there, but I think it was six of them cut zero positions. And the General Administration, which is kind of the overarching administration function — no teachers — they only cut one filled position, one actual person, and a lot of vacant positions.

Martinez: In this particular budget negotiation year, state officials told state agencies, “Look, you need to be looking for savings.” How did the UNC system react to that?

Robinson: The UNC system reacted to that by asking for more money both in operating expenses and in capital expenses.

Martinez: So let’s talk a little bit more about that. They were asked to look for savings and to tighten the belt, and then they asked for more?

Robinson: Yes, exactly.

Martinez: Why would they do that?

Robinson: I think they probably wanted to set the bar for negotiation very, very high.

Martinez: You’ve written … about your recommendations for where they could actually look for some savings. Let’s talk about some of those. The first one, you say, is that they’ve got some unnecessary administrators. Ouch. Tell us about that.

Robinson: Many of the schools — and this is by no means all of them — but particularly the large schools have far, far too many administrators. All the schools have more administrators than faculty members, and I think that’ll surprise a lot of people. They think that the primary employees at a university are the faculty members. But if you add up the clerical, professional, and paraprofessional staff — so this is not including the dining hall staff and things like that, these are administrators — if you add up all the administrators, they outnumber the faculty. And at UNC-Chapel Hill, they actually outnumber the faculty 5-1. And if you’re doing your math, that’s one administrator for every four students.

Martinez: Is it like that on every campus?

Robinson: UNC-Chapel Hill is the worst offender, but none of them, as I said, have fewer administrators than faculty members.

Martinez: So you’re recommending that they take a look at that and maybe move some people around or say, “Well, we don’t need quite as many.”

Robinson: Absolutely.

Martinez: What about the faculty, Jenna? We tend to think, at least I do, that there are professors who are just in classrooms all day long, and the kids are coming in and out, and what they do is teach all day. What is that load really like?

Robinson: There are some schools where that’s the case. They are teaching three or four classes per semester. But at our large research universities, sometimes they’re not even teaching two classes per semester. So in those situations, we think that it would be better for faculty members, tenure-track faculty members, to teach more and to use adjunct faculty less. Obviously if you use a faculty member to teach a course and don’t have to employ an adjunct, that saves the university money. But it’s also a benefit for the students, who, when they go to schools, they look at those student-faculty ratios. They want and expect to have a faculty member in the class with them.

Martinez: Is that typical on university campuses across the country, that faculty is really teaching so few classes?

Robinson: There’s a lot [of] variation, but at large research universities like N.C. State and Chapel Hill and their peer institutions, it’s very common that faculty spend less than 40 percent of their time in the classroom.

Martinez: Now if the officials at the UNC system told all of their chancellors, “This is one area we want you to look at,” what kind of reaction would you expect from faculty to that?

Robinson: I think faculty would be very upset about that. I think most of them want to pursue their research interests more than they want to teach undergraduates. Or at the very least, they want to teach the prestigious graduate courses rather than larger undergraduate sections, which probably for faculty do become repetitive. But that’s the nuts and bolts of what a university needs to be doing.

Martinez: And one would think that parents of the students going to these campuses would expect that, when it comes to the fundamentals, they’re being taught by the most highly respected, the most knowledgeable people.

Robinson: Absolutely. That’s where our universities’ reputations often come from — from having wonderful faculty members. But it’s no use to undergraduates if they don’t see those people in the classroom.

Martinez: It’s interesting you mention reputation of a university. One of the ways they develop a reputation is through specialized centers. There are a lot of these on campuses. You actually take a look at those as well. Tell us what you found when you looked at what the campuses are doing.

Robinson: … We did a study of centers a few years ago, and since then most of them have grown. They have graduated from centers to institutes. So …

Martinez: Well, there’s a difference there?

Robinson: Right. First you become a center, and then when you grow big enough, you become an institute. So at a lot of our universities, what started out as small centers have now blossomed into large institutes. And many of those institutes don’t have an academic purpose, and no classes are taught. So, really, they’re doing sometimes political work or just nonacademic work that doesn’t have anything to do with what we think is the core function of a university. And our recommendation isn’t that they should cease to exist, but that state funds shouldn’t be used to fund those centers. They should be funded privately.

Martinez: Is that realistic to think that a center that was working on something very, very specialized would be able to get private funding?

Robinson: Definitely, especially if the work is very important. I mean, a lot of the institutes and centers at UNC-Chapel Hill are working on things like cancer funding. They get a lot of money from the federal government rather than from the state government. And if something, on the other hand, is very politicized, there are a lot of donors out there who are happy to fund centers that work on something that is their point of view.

Martinez: With all of these campuses in the system, Jenna, we tend to think that they’re specializing in certain things, and, just for example, N.C. State University has a reputation for engineering, textiles, things like that. But is there duplication across campuses that maybe they could look at and say, “Well, we’re spending a little bit of extra money here”?

Robinson: Absolutely. There is more duplication actually than I expected to find. There are three marine science centers in the state, two of which are not on the coast.

Martinez: Really?

Robinson: Yes. That was shocking to me. But also there are a lot of majors. We have a lot of very, very small programs, or small majors, where to me it would make more sense to put a large program on one or two campuses rather than a small program on 10 campuses.

Martinez: Jenna, if you had to make one recommendation, where do you think is the one place where the most money could be found?

Robinson: I think it’s administrators, absolutely, hands down.