The UNC System will delay hundreds of millions in budget requests to the legislature as the state braces for economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At its Friday meeting the UNC Board of Governors unanimously approved a budget request that is largely in line with the amount the system received from the state in the 2018-2019 year. That’s a radical change from just a few weeks ago, when many members of the board argued the board should not let the worsening COVID-19 pandemic get in the way of budget requests for large projects and long-term planning.
“Overall this revised biennial budget…will represent a $185 million decrease in operating expenditures from our original budget request ,” said Interim UNC System President Bill Roper. “And will remove remove nearly all of the $632 million of capital improvement projects previously approved by the legislature.”
Up until last month Roper was barnstorming the state, appearing at various UNC campuses to draw attention to the needs and capital projects going unfunded because of the state budget stalemate between Gov. Roy Cooper, a democrat, and the Republican majority in state legislature. But the pandemic and the “unprecedented challenge” it represents have changed that, Roper said — at least for now.
“All of these projects are of critical importance to be sure and they will remain priorities,” Roper said. “At the appropriate time and opportunity we must revisit these delayed projects with renewed sense of urgency.”
The system will make a one-time, COVID-19 relief request of $45 million “to partially offset the new expenses and lost revenue as a result of the pandemic,” Roper said.
The university system understands that the pandemic drive down revenues available to the state in the near-term, Roper said, and is acting accordingly.
Like every university system UNC is concerned about enrollment, Roper said — especially among international students. But it is too early to yet have a clear picture of the full financial impact the pandemic will have on the system 17 campuses. All the schools are already taking steps to brace for that impact, Roper said.
“Four weeks ago today I directed all the universities and the UNC System office to suspend hiring, promotions and salary actions except those that are critical to our mission,” Roper said. “The chancellors have modified their operations accordingly and they are closely monitoring personnel decisions consistent with my direction.”
But the schools will be ready for the Fall semester, Roper said — whatever that ultimately looks like.
“We’ve also been actively engaged with contingency planning over the last several weeks,” he said. “Our planning focuses on making sure our universities can perform our essential functions of teaching, research and service for the people of North Carolina no matter what circumstances we face.”
The system has already begun issuing pro-rated refunds to students for unused room and board for the current semester, Roper said, and anticipates 80 percent of those refunds will be processed by the end of next week.
The board also voted to delay until May any decision on raising tuition and fees.
While most of the state’s universities would like to see tuition and fees increased and have proposed an average increase for new, in-state undergraduates of $2.5 percent, or about $165. But board members say they are reluctant to raise costs to students with so much economic uncertainty related to the pandemic.
“Given the unprecedented and extraordinary disruption that has impacted our entire country, our great state of North Carolina, our universities and all the students, faculty and staff that are the life blood of our institution, now is simply not the appropriate time to discuss the campus request for tuition and fee increased,” said Temple Sloan, chairman of the board’s budget and finance committee.
The committee will hold a special meeting within 10-14 days to discuss the issue.
“My personal opinion is if you had asked me two months ago about my thoughts on a tuition and fee increase you would have received a starkly different answer than the one that you would receive today,” Sloan said.
UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey echoed that sentiment.
“My opinion has changed greatly,” Ramsey said of tuition and fee increases. “I will have a very difficult time supporting any at all at this point.”