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UNC Budget Cuts: It did not have to be this way

Last week, UNC System chancellors received a disturbing request from system leadership. The UNC Board of Governors demanded that chancellors at all 17 UNC System campuses submit plans for cutting their budgets up to 50 percent due to COVID-related budget shortfalls. In a leaked email first reported by NC Policy Watch, Board Chairman Randy Ramsey sent an email to each campus leader asking for two budget scenarios: a 25 percent cut and a 50 percent one.

As a refresher, Randy Ramsey is a Beaufort businessman, major Republican donor, and co-founder of Jarrett Bay Boatworks and multiple other companies that deal in luxury yacht sales. The same Ramsey said he was “completely against Obamacare.” He is hardly the only one on the BOG who has does not support expanding access to health care. The BOG now consists of majority Republican businessmen and women, lawyers, lobbyists, and real estate developers who have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican committees.

If only BOG members could spare some goodwill (and funds) for the system they are charged with governing, the university might not be in such peril. While the UNC System sustained budget cut after budget cut, its governing board emblemized the reaches of corporate power. Almost a decade ago, Republicans in the General Assembly (some of whom later went on to become BOG members) slashed hundreds of millions from the UNC System, with the highest cuts to perennial conservative target UNC-Chapel Hill, to the tune of $414 million in a single year. The BOG has since shuttered three critical academic centers in a thinly-veiled ideological move characterized as economic necessity. HBCUs within the UNC System, with smaller endowments and fewer wealthy alumni in halls of state power due to systemic racism, have suffered continual divestment. In 2014 the North Carolina Senate approved a budget that would have closed an HBCU due to it being “small and unprofitable,” with no regard to marginalized communities the institution serves. Colleges and universities within the system that serve students who are marginalized racially, economically, and geographically stand to suffer the most under COVID-19 budget cuts.

Starving one of the nation’s flagship university systems as a matter of state policy began with the conservative takeover a decade ago; the events of 2020 have revealed how far this line of thinking can go and who suffers. A university system, even one considered the greatest in the nation, cannot survive the whims of conservative millionaires who have met one of the greatest public health crises and economic crises of our era with cruelty disguised as “austerity.”

Legislators cemented this approach in ironic twist at the tail end of the 2020 short session, when the North Carolina Senate appointed Art Pope to the BOG. A conservative millionaire who largely funded the right-wing takeover of North Carolina politics in 2010, Pope laid the groundwork for this 50 percent budget cut proposal. His campaign contributions and thinktanks made North Carolina politics more hospitable to big-business through state budgets that prioritized a regressive tax code, environmental deregulation, higher fees on working families, and school privatization. Pope actualized this vision in 2013 as former Governor Pat McCrory’s state budget director. Pope cited that very role, along with the budget shortfall during his time on the budget committee in 1991 and 2001 as qualifying him for the role on the BOG. Specifically, he would bring the “same spirit of open discourse” to the position. Moreover, Pope is connected to multiple current and former BOG members, through the General Assembly and Pope-funded matrix that weaves through North Carolina conservative politics.  In any other year, Pope being appointed to the BOG would have prompted fierce backlash, but the year is 2020 and his appointment will fall in line with other disturbing developments to the news cycle.

Ramsey’s request to chancellors, however, should give us all pause. The prospect of cutting 50 percent of a university budget should raise eyebrows and sound alarm bells. It did not have to be this way. Of course, the (largely avoidable) destruction to human life and the economy wrought by COVID-19 forced local governments and university systems to reckon with plummeting tax revenue, delayed fees, and lowered (or rescinded) tuition due to courses being moved online. However, legislators and wealthy Board leaders who treat the university like a business rather than a public good often pose extreme austerity as the only viable alternative during crisis. We should question the assumptions that undergird this very impulse.