School of the Arts weaves a tangled web(site)

by Jim Longworth

The University of North Carolina School of the Arts is famous for creating high drama on stage and in film, but now they’ve created some drama behind the scenes. Last Friday a press release of sorts appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal announcing that UNCSA had contracted with a Chicago-based company to design a new website for the university. The firm, mStoner, Inc., is to be paid $430,000 for the design and for digital communication services. That contract begs two important questions. How is UNCSA able to spend $430,000 to design a website, and why aren’t they spending that money locally or within the State?

First, let’s tackle the money part. According to, North Carolina’s public universities have experienced $500 million in budget cuts since the recession, and that includes significant cuts in need-based aid for students. It also includes $20 million in recent management flexibility cuts, of which UNCSA is not exempt. Also, last August when UNCSA was told its budget was being slashed by an additional $333,621, University spokesperson Lauren Whitaker told the Winston-Salem Journal they avoided layoffs “by reducing funds that would have been available…to purchase technology.” This is the same university that has complained about state budget cuts, and who supports and benefits from film companies coming here and spending their money. Yet now UNCSA is handing over $430,000 to a company with no ties to the Triad or to the state. “Kind of ironic, isn’t it?” said Will Ragsdale of the Winston-Salem-based Mitre Agency, one of over a dozen North Carolina firms who bid on the UNCSA project.

And what about those North Carolina design companies who were passed over by UNCSA? I spent several hours on the phone Friday afternoon speaking with a half dozen firms in the Triad and Triangle areas. I wanted to get their take on UNCSA’s decision to outsource web work to an Illinois-based company. I also spoke with Ward Caldwell, vice Provost and project manager at UNCSA who was most cooperative in explaining and defending his methodology.

It should be noted that mStoner does excellent work and has specialized in college websites. “MStoner’s experience in education can’t be underestimated,” Caldwell told me. “It was not obvious to us that other companies in State had the capabilities.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Ragsdale. “There are tons of people who could do the work, so why not do business in the state of North Carolina?” Another local design executive who asked to remain anonymous, concurred with Ragsdale, saying, “There are multiple firms in North Carolina who use the same technology as mStoner, several of them are here in the Triad, and there are twice as many in Raleigh.”

Doug Barton, owner of the award-winning Trone Brand Energy advertising agency located in High Point is one of those qualified firms. “We definitely could have done the (UNCSA) project. In fact, we made it to the finals and presented how we would do it and what we would do. There were some short-term lead times, but it was very doable,” said Barton.

Raleigh-based VisionPoint Marketing was also a finalist for the UNCSA project. CEO Diane Kuehn told me “We were capable of doing the job, and our bid was $40,000 less than mStoner’s.” Meanwhile, another Triad design company executive told me they underbid mStoner by $80,000.

Caldwell defended UNCSA’s decision to hire a more expensive Chicago company over all other bidders, even though budgets are tight, and cost was one of the five criteria factored into the judging process. The other four criteria were an ability to design a high quality, innovative and functional website; the ability to design a website that takes advantage of the unique visual and moving images component of the University’s five art schools; an understanding of the project goals; and an ability to deliver the site on schedule. But those are very standard criteria which any number of North Carolina-based companies could meet, and have done so for hundreds of satisfied clients. The decision to go out-of-state was particularly disappointing to Ragsdale, whose agency has done work for UNCSA in the past. “We are a brand design company, and we’ve helped revitalize and dimensionalize the University’s brand. It seems we would have been involved at some level in this project,” said Ragsdale.

UNCSA’s evaluation process was perfectly legal, but that doesn’t make it right. For a taxpayer supported institution to pass over local, tax paying, qualified design companies, and to make such a large expenditure in the midst of a budget crunch, is a major public relations blunder, and an insult to North Carolina entrepreneurs.

“Clearly UNCSA does not value local talent,” one design executive told me. “All things being equal, the work should stay in State,” said Diane Kuehn. Trone’s Doug Barton agrees. “I definitely believe for those type of assignments they should keep it within the State, assuming the resources in the state are capable of doing the work. Just like the Lottery. They’re required to keep their work in the state unless there’s no resource in the state to do the work. I don’t think this should be any different. If the North Carolina Departments of Tourism and Commerce are treated that way, I don’t understand why this would be treated any different. UNCSA is predominantly funded with our taxes, so I don’t see why they get treated any differently. It should function in the same way, and I don’t understand why the decision was made.”

According to last week’s announcement, mStoner is just beginning to meet with folks on campus to determine what the website should include, which probably means no substantive work has begun. If so, then I would think that the governor would suggest to UNCSA’s newly hired chancellor that he put a hold on the web project until an investigation is made to determine exactly why the job didn’t go to a qualified company in North Carolina. At the very least, UNCSA should be instructed to favor in-State vendors going forward.

As news of the web debacle surfaced last Friday, Chancellor Lindsay Bierman was making his first report to UNCSA’s full Board of Trustees. In it, he set forth his goals and objectives for the University, which included joining with the Winston-Salem Alliance to promote “economic and entrepreneurial development in the region.” Last time I checked, Chicago is not in our region, and the decision to spend $430,000 out-of-state, rather than with in-state companies, runs counter to his stated objectives. The chancellor needs to re-think the University’s web contract, or else lose credibility with the very entrepreneurs he seeks to promote. !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).