The truth is finally getting out. UNC-Greensboro’s ongoing budget crisis threatens to leave the university a shell of its former self. Since 2019, fueled in part by the coronavirus pandemic, UNCG has lost 11% of its enrollment (2,218 students), leading all campuses in the UNC System in total losses. With state funding tied to enrollments, the administration is slashing budgets and hiring consultants to advise the university on program elimination.
Chancellor Frank Gilliam’s recent comments to North Carolina Public Radio acknowledge that the budget deficit will mean people will lose their jobs as more academic programs and services are cut.
“Everything’s on the table,” Gilliam said. “At base, we’re talking about people and their livelihoods.”
For several years, UNCG’s administration has not been willing to admit this grim reality outside of closed meetings where they project enrollment losses and budget reductions to continue at least for another two years. For UNCG to survive this crisis with its reputation and academic standing intact will require the aid of everyone who appreciates the university’s unique economic and social contributions to the region and its diverse student body.
People are also reading…
How this happened
Much could be said about how we got here. Although many headwinds are national and statewide, UNCG has been among the hardest hit in the UNC System because of its unique mission. It has been consistently ranked No. 1 in the state for achieving “social mobility” for its students — a metric that speaks to the economically disadvantaged backgrounds of the students who enroll and graduate from the university. Now, the UNC Board of Governors (BOG) has announced a new funding formula for UNC campuses with punitive effects on campuses enrolling these same students. This new formula drastically reduces funding for graduate education and punishes campuses that have high student-debt rates and longer time-to-graduate rates. This is the case for UNCG, a university that enrolls large numbers of students who need to borrow money and/or hold jobs to pay for school.
Despite the enrollment drop, the UNCG “budget crisis” is, ultimately, an artificial one created by the state and the BOG. North Carolina has a $3.25 billion surplus in addition to a $5.9 billion reserve fund for “fiscal emergencies.” UNCG’s $12 million shortfall under the new funding formula might easily qualify as a very small emergency if the General Assembly, or the BOG, prioritized UNCG’s educational mission.
An opaque process
At UNCG itself, critical details about the budget are deliberately kept from view. The administration has informed its faculty that cutting programs and instructional staff is “necessary” while new initiatives seem to find funding, and the provost and chancellor spend through “special projects” funds that have no accountability. Virtually all endowment funds are declared restricted and untouchable — although an independent audit of UNCG by endowment expert Howard Bunsis in 2015 suggested there is far more flexibility in such funds. Episodes of gross mismanagement have occurred in recent years in the Information Technology Services and (now disbanded) UNCG Online departments. What happened to the federal pandemic relief (HEERF) funds that were not targeted at students remains a mystery. Moreover, highly paid administrators continue to receive bonuses and raises despite their poor performance in recent years.
While the administration has verbally affirmed its commitment to preservation of UNCG’s core mission of research and teaching, its actions suggest that these commitments are shaky at best. All indicators suggest that money will guide all future decision-making, with little thought given to preserving the values of an educational institution with a unique mission to serve diverse North Carolinians and its surrounding community. Despite promises to establish a fair process to review programs with substantial faculty participation, the process for fulfilling these promises remains opaque, and lack of trust in the administration threatens to sidetrack any fair and inclusive process. External consultants have been hired to collect quantitative “data” that will be used as the basis for deliberations, despite admission by those same consultants that such data is flawed and incomplete.
Who suffers cuts?
Nonterminal master’s programs have been singled out for across-the-board defunding without any program review or consultation with program directors to consider possible far-reaching consequences of such action. International programs are being cut at a university that prides itself on training global citizens. In addition, UNCG’s administration has made moves to make professional-track faculty, who do the bulk of the teaching for less pay and don’t have the protection of tenure, easier to fire by only giving them one-year contracts. Many of them are beloved teachers who’ve worked at UNCG for decades. It’s safe to assume that they will soon join the droves of tenure-track faculty and staff who have left UNCG in the past few years, disheartened by the constant budget cuts and top-down decision-making.
There’s much that can and must be done to turn the tide. If the UNCG administration wants to restore the confidence and trust of the faculty, the first step will be to refrain from all future cuts until faculty and staff have agreed on a process through which to chart a vision for the future of the university. Greater budget transparency is desperately needed, and the administration should cooperate with independent audits paid for by the UNCG chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
It’s also time for alumni, community members, students, faculty and staff to join Chancellor Gilliam in raising awareness of the harms that are being inflicted on the university by the state. If the North Carolina legislature and the BOG persist in defunding institutions that serve disadvantaged students, UNCG will continue to suffer. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment in which everyone who cares about UNCG’s mission must raise their voices.
It’s not too late, but time is running out.