You often hear that North Carolina’s public universities are the “crown jewel” of the state. While this is indeed true, the deadlock in Raleigh over funding for a new budget continues to hamstring our state’s public institutions. Some of the most urgent needs can be found at Western Carolina University, where the lack of funding is beginning to negatively affect students and faculty.
Western Carolina is absolutely crucial to the health and vitality of Western North Carolina. Its students go on to become effective leaders in business and government, and members of the university’s faculty are nationally recognized experts in their respective fields.
The budget deadlock’s negative impacts on daily life in Cullowhee largely concern campus infrastructure, tuition and faculty salaries. Without the $16.5 million in capital funds included in the yet-to-be-enacted budget, WCU is unable to repair its century-old and failing steam plant, which is one harsh winter or mechanical failure away from a complete campus shutdown. We saw this scenario nearly unfold in 2016, and recent winter weather reminds us of how important the steam plant is to campus. Four years after this near miss, the steam plant is living on borrowed time.
While the steam plant is Western Carolina’s most critical need, the fight over the budget affects the university in other ways. The opening of the Tom Apodaca Science Building will be delayed if operations and maintenance funding continues to be tied up into the next legislative session. Although Moody’s recently reaffirmed WCU’s credit rating as Aa3, with a stable outlook, a lingering budget impasse has the potential to negatively affect the institution’s rating later this year, which could limit the ability to finance planned projects.
Western Carolina, along with two other institutions in the UNC System, has seen sustained growth due in part to the NC Promise tuition plan, which was passed by the General Assembly in 2016 and implemented during the fall of 2018. Since the effective date of our current budget on July 1, 2018, WCU has added 1,133 new students with a population that currently exceeds 12,100. Additional growth is expected in fall 2020.
The lower NC Promise tuition generates a $4 million funding shortfall for WCU, which is supposed to be covered by NC Promise buy-down funding for fall 2018 and 2019. If the budget impasse continues, we will be unable to account for that shortfall and forced to limit enrollment growth potentially as early as fall 2020 and extending into fall 2021.
Without resources to provide competitive compensation, our ability to attract talent and, more importantly, retain key faculty and staff is threatened. We have already lost faculty to other states, and we may lose more. Experienced professors with years of service are earning lower salaries than some new faculty at other institutions who have only recently emerged from their doctoral programs. The lack of competitive salaries will be felt in the faculty-to-student teaching ratios, which are critical to provide high-quality education with a high level of faculty engagement.
If North Carolina wants to support Catamount country and keep it thriving, the new budget needs to be enacted immediately.
Our concern is not a partisan one. It is, pure and simple, a desire to see our state’s institutions fully supported and fully funded. At Western Carolina, the need for an enacted budget is as critical as it has ever been. We urge leaders in Raleigh to find a solution as quickly as possible for the good of this proud university and for the people of the state.
Bill Roper is interim president of the University of North Carolina System. Kelli Brown is chancellor of Western Carolina University.