UNC not releasing ‘worst case scenario’ budget proposals

A week after UNC System leaders required chancellors at the 17 campuses to submit plans for budget cuts of up to 50%, the system is still not publicly releasing those plans.

The system’s lawyers are still vetting the documents, according to Josh Ellis, associate vice president for media relations. The system hopes to  make them available in the near future, he said, but cannot give a timeline for their release.

It’s an answer that frustrates parents, students and faculty concerned about the future of the university system as students begin returning to campus next week, as well as open government advocates who say people should be given access to public documents as quickly as possible.

Policy Watch first reported UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey’s email directive to the chancellors earlier this month.

Ramsey asked each of the chancellors for three things:

  • A report from each chancellor on the financial impact of closing their campus and reducing tuition and room and board fees, should that become necessary during the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.
  • A plan from each chancellor to reduce their budgets by between 25% and 50%, to account for the reduced revenue resulting from reduced enrollment under various degrees of closure.
  • A projection of how the cancellation of fall athletics will affect each campus and their specific plans for revenue shortfalls.

That information from each campus should be public information, said Amanda Martin, attorney for the North Carolina Press Association and board member of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition.

“The law requires them to provide records as promptly as possible — that’s the language of the statute,” Martin said. “I know of no exemption to the law that would permit the withholding of these records,” Martin said.

Until Thursday afternoon, when the UNC System was made aware this story would be published, it had not responded in any way to Policy Watch’s repeated requests for the documents. It also did not respond to a request to provide a legal justification for withholding the documents.

“They have to provide the documents or provide the statute they believe allows them to withhold them,” Martin said. “One of the two.”

Plans that address general or categorical reductions would not be covered under exemptions for personnel records, Martin said. Even in plans that would involve specific personnel information, she said, would have to provided with appropriate redactions.

Policy Watch is not alone in seeking these records.

Dr. Michael Behrent

Dr. Michael Behrent, chair of the Faculty Senate at Appalachian State University, has been attempting to get a copy of his school’s plan since reading Policy Watch’s original story on July 17 — so far without success.

On July 20 Behrent requested the document during a discussion with administration at a Faculty Senate meeting. Instead of providing the document, the administrators directed him to Appalachian State’s General Counsel. The counsel’s office declined to provide them, saying Behrent — a faculty leader, not a journalist — would have to request the information as a part of a Freedom of Information Act request through University Communications and the same request portal used by media.

“That’s not what state law says,” Behrent said.

He points to state statute on public records, as quoted by the office of the North Carolina Attorney General:

“The Public Records Law does not describe any specific procedure that a person must follow in requesting to inspect public records.  Normally, a request to any employee in a government office is sufficient to get access to records in that office. However, it is the custodian of public records who is specifically required to allow those records to be inspected. The public official in charge of an office is the designated custodian of records for that office. N.C.G..S. § 132-2”

Behrent submitted a formal request through the university portal Thursday, while noting in an accompanying email that the school’s delay in producing the records is unacceptable.

“I note that this report was submitted on or around July 24,” Behrent wrote to Appalachian State General Counsel Paul Meggett and Chief Communication Officer Megan Hayes. “This document should be readily available and there is no reason for any delay, let alone a long delay.”

“I would also like to note that I have submitted this formal request because the university has not appropriately honored state public records and freedom of information laws in relation to prior requests for this document,” Behrent continued.

“The law is not meant to encourage processes that create delay and complexity,” Behrent wrote. “As a faculty member, I am fully within my rights to request the document and, insofar as it is public, I should expect that it be provided to me on the basis of that request alone. This process has not been followed.”

Faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill also requested more information on that school’s plan from Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz during a Faculty Council meeting on July 24.

Guskiewicz minimized the importance of the email from Ramsey and claimed media had misinterpreted it.

“Those early reports were interpreting that memo incorrectly,” Guskiewicz said.

Policy Watch, the first outlet to report the email’s existence, quoted Ramsey’s words directly and also printed a lengthy statement from him explaining his intentions in seeking plans for 25 percent and 50 percent reductions.

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz

“I think that message was, again, misinterpreted,” Guskiewicz said. “The 25 to 50 percent figures listed…these really represented enrollment drops. And so what we’ve been asked to do is to compile scenarios. And we’ve been scenario planning for months, okay? So this is consistent with what every institution has been doing hopefully for these past several months, for what the sort of outcomes could be of a budget shortfall of enrollment declines.”

Guskiewicz went on to say that enrollment drops at UNC are projected at about 15 or 16 percent under the “worst case scenario” which he does not expect to see in reality. Five to seven percent enrollment drops are more likely, he said.

Guskiewicz’s characterization of Ramsey’s request does not match the actual email.

Ramsey’s reference to 25 percent and 50 percent figures did not represent declines of enrollment of those percentages, as Guskiewicz said, but actual “spending reductions.”

In the relevant section of the email Ramsey calls for “a plan from each chancellor to reduce their budgets by between 25 and 50 percent” as a result of possible drops in enrollment. He goes on to say the plans “should be very specific and include details of which programs will be shuttered, which positions will be furloughed, laid off or eliminated entirely and all other details of how a 25 to 50 percent spending reduction will be handled.”

Ramsey did not dispute that the figures represented actual spending reductions for planning purposes in a statement to Policy Watch. He further confirmed it in a press conference after last week’s UNC Board of Government meeting. The 25 and 50 percent figures are “worst case scenario” planning, Ramsey said, but do represent the actual percentages of spending reductions he expects to see gamed out by each university in the system.

How the schools responded to Ramsey’s directive will remain unclear until the UNC System releases those plans.

This is not the first pandemic related communication problem between the UNC System office, its board of governors and the system’s chancellors.

Last month Guskiewicz also incorrectly told a faculty meeting that any decision to close campuses in the Fall semester due to COVID-19 infections would be made at the local level. Faculty across the system report that their chancellors had made similar statements.

The day after Guskiewicz made that statement, Ramsey made clear in an email that those decisions would instead be made by the board of governors and new UNC System President Peter Hans.

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