Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Shut 'em down, Republicans suggest

Some Republican legislators are determined to take the University of North Carolina down a notch or two by eliminating a campus or two from the 16-campus UNC system. The proposal, which cropped up earlier this month, would have the state look at the feasibility of closing down some campuses to save the state money. 

North Carolina has a proud history of quality higher education. It is home to the first state university, and UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State rank high in surveys of quality and value. Under the heroic leadership of William Friday, the UNC system rose to national prominence, despite frequent tiffs between campuses and occasional fights with the legislature.

Not all UNC campuses offer the quality of the flagship universities. The majority of the 16 campuses wore the name "college" or something similar before being folded into the UNC system. First came a couple of "regional universities" in the east and west to augment the offerings at Chapel Hill and N.C. State. But before that, the state saw fit to establish a campus for the education of women, called the Women's College of the University of North Carolina, now the co-educational (an archaic term) UNC-Greensboro. Not only did North Carolina set aside a college for women, it set aside colleges for the education of Negroes (as African-Americans were called in those days). There was even a college for the education of indigenous Americans at Pembroke, although the Lumbee tribe there had never gained federal recognition.

And that is why the UNC system has so many campuses, many of them in close proximity, in a state that is not all that large, geographically. And that is also why it will be politically difficult to close any campuses, even those that may be under-attended or under-performing. Combining campuses or shifting academic departments from one campus to another was a goal of the 1970s federal civil rights case against UNC. Ten years earlier, North Carolina had merged a dual system of public education by merging white and black public schools, even if it meant closing some campuses. Friday and the state fought back against the feds, claiming that each campus had a special role, and UNC eventually won.

Now Republicans in the legislature want to do what the Democrats in the Carter administration failed to do — close some UNC campuses. The cause this time is efficiency, not civil rights. But civil rights, this time, will make closing more difficult. Imagine, for instance a proposal to merge UNC-G and N.C. A&T, both located in Greensboro, or to close Elizabeth City State, which has just 2,878 students — 31,000 fewer than N.C. State.

To close or merge campuses that taught black students in the days of segregation would be an affront to black history and black pride. Politically, it would be deadly. These campuses are HBCUs — Historically Black Colleges or Universities — giving them special status in higher education and in civil rights.

Closing UNC-Pembroke would likewise offend the Native American constituency, and closing the smallest of the campuses — UNC-Asheville (3,751 students) or Elizabeth City State (2,878 students) would take higher education out of an isolated region of the state. The N.C. School of the Arts (880 students) and School of Science and Math (680 students in their final two years of high school) have special missions and have gained national recognition for their innovations and success.

So where does that leave the Republican budget slashers? They will have to do what legislators and university administrators have always done — nibble away at the expenses and try not to hurt the quality of education. If they are smart, they won't risk the anger of HBCU alumni or art aficionados or the struggling residents of poor, rural regions whose solitary hope might be the small university that holds the area together. 

North Carolina would never plan a university system with so many campuses scattered, almost helter-skelter, around the state. But now that it has just such a system, altering it won't be easy.

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