Enrollment drops, state cuts draw student ire at UNCG

by Jeff Sykes

Outside the University Center, on the lawn in a blustery February cold, gathered a group of UNC-Greensboro students and faculty to chant slogans, the more passionate among them even rising above the crowd by stepping up on a concrete bench to give speeches about the future of the university they hold so dear.

Inside the University Center, assembled in a meeting room with towering glass windows looking out onto the same gray of February, were television crews and university media relations people hovering around the vice chancellors and assistant provosts collected to defend the direction of the university where some of them have worked since before any of the students on the lawn had yet been born.

At first glance it might seem like two sides of a standard generational conflict, the type seen on university campuses with the self-same frequency as vendors appear selling rock posters to adorn dorm rooms or Gideons gather at intersections passing out pocket sized New Testaments.

But what we have here isn’t failure to communicate. Indeed, both sides are articulate and express themselves with a clarity our national political leaders could learn from. But that clarity is lost in the swirl of issues, like disparate parts of a living thing moving at cross-purposes.

The university absorbed $39 million in budget cuts in the last seven years. News broke last month that another cut of $12.8 million looms, the majority of which comes from a drop in enrollment that will cost UNCG more than $7 million.

Administrators have responded with incremental hikes in the costs of attending the school, but that comes nowhere near to making up for the massive losses in funding over the last decade.

Students see higher tuition and fees each year, leading to larger student loan debts in an economy few in their generation have much faith in.

And so that’s why students like Kimberly Cain, a diminutive but fiery political science major from Jacksonville, stepped up on the semi-circled concrete bench in the middle of the lawn to be heard on a day when the wind of late February caused most others to hurry past for the warmth of the student center.

Cain’s concern is the increasing cost of education. A visible point of contention, like for so many here, is the construction of a $91 million student recreation center set to open in 2016. The university has increased student fees by more than $400 to finance the deal, and that will rise by another $156 when the facility opens. That has driven UNCG’s student facilities fee to the highest in the state system.

“There is a lack of commitment by our administration to address the student debt crisis that’s occurring nationally and that is being demonstrated by this willingness to build a rec center that increases the costs of fees,” Cain said. “Administrators will say they haven’t increased the price of tuition, but if you add it all up, it is going to cost an incoming freshman about $3,000 if they take five years to graduate.”

The relative annual cost at UNCG may still be competitive with other schools, Cain said, but that fails to take into consideration the absolute cost of finishing a degree. She highlighted the staffing and program cuts that are causing students to need extra semesters in order to take necessary courses.

University administrators are quick with spreadsheets that compare divisional budget cuts, and while they are not unsympathetic to student emotion, it is hard to quell the passion students and faculty members have for programs and courses that are either cut or offered less frequently.

It was announced at the end of February that the minor program in American Sign Language would be eliminated, as would the ability for students to take ASL to fulfill foreign language requirements in other majors.

Freshman Jen Nelson said the ASL minor was a draw when she decided to attend UNCG.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” Nelson stated in an email announcing the recent walkout. “The ASL classes are extremely popular at UNC-Greensboro, and there have even been waiting lists for non-majors to take ASL. It angers me that important programs are being eliminated.”

At the protest itself, Nelson was just as vocal, expressing her concern that the university is cutting into the core of its mission.

“I came to UNCG specifically because I was told that the emphasis was placed on the student,” she said. “I have found that to be a lie. Unless you define a student as a business or a state of the art facility, then the emphasis will not be on you.”

Nelson said the burden of budget cuts are falling on academic programs and the core of the university is under threat.

“If the academic core is not protected now then they will have nothing in the future to protect,” she said.

Dhruv Pathak, a sophomore from Charlotte and one of the organizers of the event, was just as bold in demanding a student referendum regarding the recreation center.

“We’re demanding … that the rec center be stopped and that academics be fully funded because that’s what we’re here for,” he said. “We’re not here for athletics or all these superfluous things that are going on around us.”

UNCG: ‘What we have here isn’t failure to communicate’

After his stump speech, Pathak was no less passionate about the budget crunch facing the university. He detailed what many here feel about the cuts to popular, but lesser known, programs such as ASL, or his own African-American Studies.

“It’s a big deal to a lot of people because UNCG is one of the few schools that offer ASL,” he said. “It’s one of those programs that don’t get a lot of attention or generate a lot of money from the students that graduate with those degrees.

They are put on this plate and called useless because they are not the Bryan School of Business.”

Pathak said the African-American Studies program outranked the Bryan School of Business nationally, but held little sway because of the size and lack of prestige in the market-oriented university environment.

“I guarantee you it would be much easier for them to cut the African-American Studies because what do they end up being? They end up being professors, getting back into academia,” he said. “That’s what the frustration is. We don’t come to this school only for business. It’s a big part of it but this is a school for education. It is a school for liberal arts. All of these various program are so important to the liberal arts education. It’s disheartening to see it being cut back a lot. It’s part of the corporate model of education that we’ve been facing.”

In the face of such rhetoric stand university administrators, who may, in fact, bear the greater burden. The UNC System as a whole is under scrutiny from a new generation of leadership in Raleigh. The state’s budget director recently rejected the entire university budget request as “unrealistic” and demanded an 11 percent reduction.

The reality of the state’s budget, combined with policy decisions that have made becoming a teacher less of an attraction to young people, have had a crippling effect on schools like UNCG. Their campus has been a fountainhead educating those who go on to work as teachers in our state’s public schools.

But with North Carolina falling to near the very bottom of the nation in teacher pay, and a new policy that eliminated a salary bonus for teachers with a master’s degree, UNCG has seen a sizable drop in enrollment at both levels in the school of education.

“That dropped the floor out from under that program,” said Reade Taylor, the university’s vice-chancellor for business affairs.

Taylor was a model of stoicism in the face of tough questions about the university’s budget cuts. Patiently finding a line item on a spreadsheet printout, he detailed where the cuts are coming from and what aspects of the university are absorbing them.

The General Assembly dictated a $1.5 million cut for the school, followed by a notice from the budget office requiring another two percent for next year. That equals about $3 million for UNCG. But the sticker shock comes with the enrollment decline that will cost the university almost $8 million next year.

In addition to the lower enrollment in their cornerstone education program, Taylor said UNCG had raised its SAT threshold in order to compete for higher qualified students. Administrators knew this would cause an enrollment drop at first, and it is the overarching campus plan to improve quality of life for students that will make the university more competitive in that field, Taylor said.

He expressed sympathy with the students and faculty frustrated by the $39 million in cuts since 2008.

“(Faculty) are already stretched thin on class size, how many students they have to teach and we’ve asked them to take on administrative duties such as a secretary used to do before hand,” Taylor said. “I think there is a frustration with us building a rec center and people don’t see the connection with how the rec center helps UNCG move into the future. The chancellor and the trustees are charged with looking out for UNCG not just for today but to make sure UNCG will be relevant and around in the future.”

Taylor has worked at the school for 30 years. He said the budget cuts are stifling areas where gains could be made via efficiency and automated processes in administration. His division has been cut 10 percent during the previous budget reductions and he’s unable to fill needed information technology jobs. He eliminated a receptionist position in his department that had been funded since he’s been there.

The chancellor had allocated larger cuts to business affairs and IT, Taylor said, while other divisions had been cut up to 15 percent. In real dollars, Taylor explained, the academic programs at UNCG had a flat budget compared to 2008, when the budget crunch began.

The university spends the vast majority of its money on Academic Affairs and has attempted to offset cuts there by allocating tuition increases and enroll- ment change dollars to that division. !