Pound-foolish cuts?

May. 22, 2014 @ 05:26 PM

As the General Assembly’s budget scythe sweeps back and forth across state programs, the casualties continue to mount. 

This week, trustees of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill grappled with the consequences of losing about 40 percent of the state funding for the system’s centers and institutes. That cut is in the governor’s budget, likely to be less unfavorable to education than the State Senate version of the budget due out next week.

The thinking on reductions to the centers and institutes appears to be that many don’t grant degrees, and they may not be central to core educational functions of the university’s campuses.

There may be some logic in that, but the centers -- many of which already have been on the budget-trimming radar -- may be too easily dismissed by the legislative majority crafting spending priorities.

Leave aside for a moment arguments that the mission of a great university system is not just to teach, but also to foster research that will help expand the boundaries of knowledge -- or find new ways to apply that knowledge to solving real-world problems.

Leave aside that the centers’ help to stimulate the overall intellectual climate on campus, and that they help to attract top scholars.

No, let’s look at a much more pragmatic argument, one we would think would appeal to fiscal conservatives. At the Chapel Hill flagship, 15 research centers and institutes bring in $160 million annually in research funding from sources other than the state.

Looking at these numbers from a return-on-investment perspective, the argument is powerful. The programs yield about $7.78 for every state dollar invested, Barbara Entwisle, UNC’s vice chancellor for research, told the trustees’ finance and infrastructure committee.

“You can’t just cut them and nothing happens,” Entwisle said. “This will have consequences for research.”

The cuts to the centers are only part of the continued slicing of the university’s budget. There seems little hope of tempering that damage. The governor and legislators are scrambling to find money for modest pay increases for teachers and state employees and, at least in the governor’s plan, fairly substantial boosts for early-career teachers. 

But the state’s revenue flow continues to dwindle, the consequence of deep tax cuts last year and more to come.  Perhaps the theory those cuts will attract new business and otherwise spur private-sector growth will bear fruit, and eventually restore some of that revenue as the tax base expands. But in the short term the gaping hole in the budget remains.

That revenue shortfall virtually guarantees more cuts to higher education, including community colleges, and health and human services programs if money is to be found for teachers and state employees.

The cuts even fall on basic services – such as a $2.4 million reduction in money for utilities at UNC.

“The electricity is the electricity. The water is the water,” trustee Don Curtis mused. “Do you limit the commode flushes?”

It has, apparently, come to that.