UNC schools begin responding to potential budget cuts of up to 50 percent

Last week, Policy Watch reported the UNC Board of Governors Chairman directed the chancellors of its 17 campuses to prepare plans for 25 to 50 percent budget cuts as the system may have to move to all-online instruction in the coming Fall semester.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic is worse in the state now than when the system closed campuses last semester, it still plans to bring tens of thousands of students back to its campuses beginning next month.

This week, as the board prepares to meet in committees Wednesday and as a full board Thursday, the schools are beginning to respond to the demand — and deep concern among administrators, students and staff.

The schools have been given until Friday to prepare their reports, according to sources at multiple UNC campuses. Several of them don’t expect to meet that deadline.

“We don’t have a list,” Appalachian State University Provost Heather Norris told a Faculty Senate meeting Monday afternoon. “And we won’t have a list by Friday.”

Over the weekend Miles Lackey, vice chancellor for Business Affairs at UNC-Wilmington, sent Policy Watch’s story about the cuts to the chancellor’s leadership cabinet with a message assuring them that the school is in a strong financial position.

“The prudent financial management you and your teams have exercised over the years enables us to navigate challenging economic times from a position of strength,” Lackey wrote. “The point is further bolstered by the fact we are slated to receive the largest enrollment-based appropriation increase in the entire UNC-system this fiscal year.”

UNC-Wilmington Chancellor Jose Sartarelli sent a nearly identical message was sent to the school’s faculty and staff Monday.

Faculty at Appalachian State had a swift negative reaction to the message. One of the UNC System’s primary justifications for pushing forward with face-to-face instruction in the Fall is the potential for students to drop classes if they are held online-only. Why, faculty are now asking, is a school that says it is financially healthy enough to absorb a potential 50 percent budget cut unwilling to risk a pivot to online only in order to safeguard the health of students, faculty and staff?

More than 200 faculty at the school signed a letter last week asking students and their families to make the decision to take classes online this semester.

From that letter:

In the current plan, nearly 6,000 students will live in high-density university housing. Thousands more will live in high-density off-campus housing. Thoughtful on-campus policies will not ensure safe behavior off-campus. It is realistic to expect students to engage in normal college behaviors, including congregating in large numbers within enclosed spaces (for example, parties). Examples from other universities (such as Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Kansas State, Mississippi, Vanderbilt, Washington and recently UNC) illustrate how viral outbreaks quickly spread.

Students will return to academic buildings with small classrooms, limited ventilation and narrow hallways. There is no plan for widespread testing of the campus community to identify asymptomatic cases before an outbreak. Our rural healthcare system has limited isolation beds.

But infection will not be contained on campus or in Boone. Students will travel freely during the semester. As infection reaches the High Country from distant locales, the high-density student population combined with the aging retiree population may be the perfect incubator for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In March, students returned home from a campus that had not seen active cases. We should not expect the same this fall.

Bringing the broader student body back to campus is irresponsible. It is not safe for students, staff, faculty or the community. Faculty have noted these concerns in several forms. Faculty Senate resolutions were passed in May and June. A survey at https://www.change.org/p/dr-sheri-everts-appalachian-state-university-instructors-petition-regarding-covid-19 gathered several hundred faculty signatures. But our voice was not heard.

It is dishonest to pretend that the in-person experience offered this fall will approximate a typical semester. Limited classroom instruction will take place from behind a mask or barrier. Social distancing will hamper the informal interactions that foster a free flow of ideas. Many students will complete online coursework in a double occupancy dorm room, donning a face mask just to walk down the hall. Promoting this as a return to normalcy is unfair to our students.

But it also is unfair to ask students to put their education on hold until a vaccine materializes. Fortunately, there are models of online instruction that recreate the intimate experience of an in-person classroom. A baseline of quality online instruction would allow a safe but limited return for specific courses and students. This is the only safe option for continuity of the educational mission.


On Monday a group of current and emeritus faculty from across the system sent a letter to UNC System leaders asking online-only classes to be the default system-wide in the Fall semester.

From that letter:

The health crisis in North Carolina has gotten worse. COVID-19 Infections surpassed 100,000 today. Hospitalizations, and deaths have increased significantly and show no sign of stopping. COVID cases have recently occurred among UNC athletes and campus workers, although classes have not yet begun (see story).

In addition, current student housing plans put our dormitories in the Center for Disease Control’s “highest risk” category for spreading the virus (see CDC statement here). Local school boards in towns with UNC campuses are responding to the inevitable surge in cases by moving August-September classes for K-12 students on-line (see story). If public schools with an August 17th opening are already deemed unsafe for children and staff, certainly campuses opening on August 10th cannot be safe for anyone.

As infections increase, so too do voters’ concerns. The petition that grew out of the letter to the chancellors and provosts has, as we write this, nearly 3,000 signatures, including many heartbreaking testimonies from members of campus communities and the North Carolina public at large. It has also received considerable media coverage (News & ObserverCBS17.com).

Parents, elderly residents, workers in businesses that serve our campuses, and many students, faculty, and staff are calling on you to join other universities, public and private, in choosing safety.

Sherryl Kleinman, an emerita professor of Sociology at UNC-Chapel Hill, was a signatory to the letter. Making online the default is the only safe option given the current state of the pandemic in North Carolina, she said, and is something UNC System leadership should be able to do without political considerations.

“According to system documents, it is the president of the UNC system who makes decisions about how to handle a public health emergency,” Kleinman said. “Dr. Roper, who is UNC system university president until August 1st, could make the decision right now to call on the universities to make online the default. And to protect workers.”

“This does not mean that no one will be on campus,” Kleinman said. “But it would considerably reduce the number of students in dorms, which would make infection rates lower for students, staff, and faculty. And lower the number of students in campus towns. According to the CDC (which Roper used to head), UNC dorms (for certain at UNC-CH) meet the “highest risk” criteria: full capacity and no room for physical distancing (and no masks). There are, for example, suites of 8 students sharing one bathroom.”

Jeffrey Braden, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at N.C. State, also sent a message on Coronavirus response Monday that touched on budget concerns.

“Although the legislature has yet to discuss higher education funding for this fiscal year (which began 1 July), here’s what I do know,” Braden wrote. “First, it is highly unlikely that there will be a single, omnibus budget bill. Instead, the legislature is likely to pass separate bills for specific purposes (including funding for the UNC System). Second, and as news outlets are reporting, it is very likely the UNC System (and therefore, NC State) will have a reduction in state appropriations, since revenue projections are down due to the economic impact of the pandemic. Therefore, I have asked all of our units to prepare for a reduction in state appropriations effective this fiscal year.”

“Because we do not yet know how much the reduction might be, or even when we will know, the leadership in the college agreed to postpone any commitments that are not essential to our operation,” Braden wrote. “For example, we have suspended travel on state-appropriated funds, which the governor has largely banned for state employees anyway. Likewise, the System has placed a freeze on non-essential new hires and pay increases. We plan to continue the travel restrictions and the freeze until we know our budget and have confidence we have the funds to meet our obligations. Other steps may be necessary, but until we know what our budget will be, we are postponing financial commitments other than those needed to sustain our core functions (e.g., teaching, paying employees, purchasing PPE).”

The UNC Board of Governors is expected to discuss the return to campuses and potential budget cuts this week.

Harry Smith, the former board chairman, reached out to Policy Watch this week to criticize current chair Randy Ramsey and system leadership for taking so long to ask for plans from the universities and now demanding them on such a short deadline.

“They should have been doing financial modeling 90 days ago,” Smith wrote in a message to Policy Watch. “It’s unrealistic to ask the campus to do such important work with haste. The fiscal crisis has been in the radar for 6 month and heavily discussed within the higher education communities. You also need time to [ensure] the system trustees gets an opportunity to be involved at the campus level.”

“This should have been done months ago with a steady measured and meaningful approach that allowed much more engagement from multiple stakeholders,” Smith wrote.

Incoming UNC System president Peter Hans would have been out ahead of this earlier, Smith wrote. Hans takes over the system’s top leadership role from Interim UNC System President Bill Roper next month.

Smith, an often combative figure during his tenure on the board, also criticized the tone of Ramsey’s email to chancellors last week.

“This is not a request,” Ramsey wrote in the message. “It is a directive.”

“Reacting like this and using such a strong tone creates fear and that’s not fair to faculty, staff, students and parents,” Smith wrote. “The system needs Peter Hans to grab the wheel as quick as he can on many fronts.”

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UNC schools begin responding to potential budget cuts of up to 50 percent