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Wednesday, 16 June 2010 14:11

Budget crunch deals blow to WCU

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Western Carolina University Chancellor John Bardo fears the budget passed by the General Assembly this year might cast a shadow over the state’s future for years to come.

Like many university leaders across North Carolina, Bardo opposes the House version of the 2010-11 budget, which requires UNC campuses to cut spending by $232 million this year.

UNC system President Erskine Bowles has estimated 1,700 jobs would be lost across 17 UNC campuses by July should the budget cuts become reality.

About 80 percent of WCU staff is funded through state money. Such a deep cut would jeopardize the ability of universities across the state to accept students — even if they’re perfectly qualified.

House leaders have threatened to fund no more than a 1 percent increase in the number of students who attend UNC colleges in the 2011-12 year, contrary to claims by legislators that enrollment growth is being funded.

“We’re making it incredibly difficult for North Carolinians to go to college,” said Bardo. “We’re restricting access. We’re restricting ability.”

Producing fewer graduates in North Carolina would not bode well for its economic development, Bardo added.

“We cannot cut areas of education and expect this state to have the capacity to compete globally,” said Bardo. “North Carolina tends to lag the rest of the nation in coming out of the recession. This is going to increase the lag, most likely.”

Skimping on faculty would lead to drastic cuts in the number of classes offered, making it harder for students to graduate on time.

WCU is nearing maximum seating capacity for many of its courses already. Only one of the university’s four lecture halls can seat more than 150 students.

On the bright side, the Senate version of the state’s $18.9 billion budget calls for cuts of $105 million, far less than what the House has proposed.

“In this economic situation, nothing is perfect,” said Bardo. “But the Senate really did attempt to make sure the universities had the resources they needed.”

Meanwhile, the governor’s proposed budget would cut $155 million from the university system.

The governor’s cuts equate to about 5 percent of the UNC system’s current budget, the Senate’s version includes 3 percent in cuts, whereas the House budget requires almost 7 percent budget reduction.

The House and the Senate have appointed their repsective delegates to a joint budget committee that will hammer out differences between the House and Senate budget starting this week, to arrive at a mutually agreeable budget hopefully by July 1.

Unfair treatment?

WCU greeted last year’s budget season armed with a plan. The college made painful, but strategic, cuts to reduce its budget by 8 percent.

In 2009, WCU’s budget was permanently reduced by about 5 percent, while the governor asked Western to make an additional 5 percent in cuts.

After passing the state 2009-10 budget, lawmakers left WCU facing the task of cutting the equivalent of 94 full-time jobs.

This year, WCU’s plan to cope with cuts under the worst-case scenario calls for freezing 45 full-time equivalent positions that are vacant. Depending on the kind of budget that’s passed, that number of positions left empty may go up.

On the other hand, Bardo estimates the Senate version of the budget might leave room for WCU to fill some of those positions. At a June 4 meeting of the WCU Board of Trustees, Bardo entreated college leaders to begin campaigning for the Senate proposal.

“We have to be seen as players in making things better,” said Bardo. “We have developed a reputation for being apathetic to what they’re doing.”

That could have led to last year’s budget, which was less than fair to the UNC system, according to Bardo. Although appropriations for the systems 17 campuses equate to 13 percent of the stat budget, 29 percent of cuts imposed across state government came from the universities, according to Bardo.

“We do understand that they have a short-term problem, having to deal with the budget,” said Bardo. “At the same time, we want them to take their responsibility.”

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