As the University of North Carolina System faces the challenges of COVID-19, university and state leaders should have their priorities clear.
First, the health and safety of students, faculty, staff and the communities around the schools must be the No. 1 consideration. COVID-19 has already killed more than 2,000 North Carolinians and has left others with serious lingering health problems. Neither the universities nor the state should unnecessarily risk more deaths.
Second, as they make decisions about budget cuts, officials should remind themselves that while universities must be operated wisely and efficiently, they are much more than businesses. Reduced income must be dealt with, and that will require tough choices. But, for the long-term good of the university system and the state, the bottom line cannot drive all decisions.
The challenges are serious. A new report about plans to deal with financial losses related to dropping enrollment is alarming. The report looks at how the campuses would react to budget cuts that could result if enrollment drops anywhere from 2% to 50% as the pandemic grinds on. Reduced enrollment, of course, means less tuition and fees coming in.
That’s not all. If sports, especially basketball and football, can’t go on as usual, that will mean more lost income. If campuses reopen to students, new health and safety measures will cost money. The economy’s downturn will hurt donations. If students can’t be on campus, or if their experience is diminished, there will be pressure for reductions in tuition and fees. With the economy in shambles, more students will need financial aid. The ripple effects spread.
Facing these grim prospects, it’s no wonder the campuses feel pressure to open up, bring students back, and get things back to normal. But safety must be the primary consideration.
There’s no question that the university system is going to suffer major financial hits. The question is whether university and state leaders will make the necessary wise choices to minimize the lasting effects.
The UNC System has long been a vital force for good in North Carolina. The schools have helped students prepare for productive lives and careers. They have helped countless young people better themselves, building a strong middle class that makes for a stable and prosperous society. Research on campuses helps the state, the nation and the world. The resources on the campuses, with their libraries, laboratories, classrooms and faculties, are invaluable.
If positions are eliminated, salaries slashed, workloads increased, research curbed, employees furloughed and other worst-case scenarios come true, the damage could be hard to reverse.
Once the COVID crisis is behind us, the UNC System will be needed more than ever.
North Carolina can’t afford to base decisions about the university system too rigidly on dollars and cents. Enrollment drops and lost income should not automatically mean wholesale cuts in budgets, personnel and educational opportunities.
The General Assembly should make decisions for the long haul, so that the UNC System will remain strong and be ready — and able to help North Carolina’s recovery. That will mean investing in the universities to help them make it through this crisis.
You can find the Winston-Salem Journal online at: https://journalnow.com.
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