Each fall, UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz co-teaches a seminar for graduate students – professors of the future – called ‘The American Professoriate.’ The class focuses on the role of public universities. This year, he teaches with Matt Springer and Buck Goldstein from the School of Education and Dean Suzanne Barbour of the Graduate School. Students and instructors write regular reflections on higher education’s role. We share some of those here.
By Kevin Guskiewicz
CHAPEL HILL (November 24, 2021) – For last week’s American Professoriate class, I brought in a pair of university budget experts and expected it would be a pretty quiet, low-key discussion. It turned out to be one of our liveliest classes of the year.
Our graduate students asked detailed, pointed questions about where Carolina gets its funding and where those dollars flow. Nate Knuffman, our vice chancellor for finance, stood at the front of the room with Kate Henz, senior associate dean for operations and strategy in the College of Arts and Sciences, explaining how investments work, how tuition is set, and how we can make graduate stipends more competitive.
It was fun and fascinating, and it made me proud to be at the helm of this $3.2 billion dollar enterprise.
The first thing our students came to understand is the sheer complexity of those billions, a maze of research grants, housing and dining operations, and salaries that support our teaching, research, and public service mission. Carolina’s budget includes tens of thousands of North Carolina jobs, from groundskeepers to heart surgeons to religion professors. It funds medical research, business startups, and artists. It pays for libraries, student aid, and the 6th-largest federal research operation in the country.
And almost all of it, from the moment it comes in the door, is earmarked for specific purposes. To meet urgent needs or fund new priorities — like those outlined in our strategic plan, Carolina Next — we have to be disciplined in managing our money.
The students asked a lot about UNC’s endowment. As Knuffman explained, that invested capital allows the University to do some amazing things, but it doesn’t provide much help in moments of acute budget pressure like we experienced during the Great Recession or the start of the Covid pandemic. Most endowed gifts are made for a specific purpose, and a dean or a chancellor can’t simply redeploy that money elsewhere. That makes the endowment an enormously valuable part of the University’s long-term funding model but not a solution to immediate needs.
We talked about tuition and how keeping costs low is fantastic for students but challenging as we try to meet growing costs in basic services. Everything is a tradeoff, just like with any household budget.
We talked about the tremendous growth of Carolina’s research operation, which has quadrupled in the last 15 years. UNC is now one of the largest research organizations on the planet, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into North Carolina’s economy each year.
Mostly, though, we talked about the role of public support in keeping Carolina firmly rooted in service to the state. At many flagship public universities, taxpayer support has fallen into the single digits as a percentage of the overall budget. Meanwhile, the people of North Carolina provide more than 17% of UNC-Chapel Hill’s funding, keeping us closely aligned to the needs of our home state. More than 80% of our undergraduates are state residents, a very different admissions profile from most of our public peers across the country. And answering the needs of North Carolina, from educating teachers to running vaccine clinics, is our highest priority.
None of that would be possible without sustained state investment. After taking a hit in aftermath of the Great Recession, state support has largely held steady across different administrations and different political parties. We saw that commitment again in the strong budget passed by lawmakers and signed by Governor Cooper this month, including millions to support much-needed repairs and upgrades for the School of Nursing, the Business School, and classrooms across campus.
We’re doing our part to honor that public trust. Last year, I announced a plan to address UNC’s long-standing structural deficit, an imbalance between how much we take in and how much we’ve promised to different programs and departments across campus. That $100 million problem had been building for years before I arrived in the chancellor’s office, but we’ve managed to eliminate the deficit through modest cuts in operational expenses and regular attrition in personnel costs — leaving some jobs vacant and maintaining a hiring freeze for much of the last year.
Those weren’t easy decisions, but they’ve put the University on a solid financial footing as we emerge from the pandemic and prepare to make strategic investments that will strengthen Carolina for the long haul. That includes more internships and job experiences for students before they graduate; hiring more diverse faculty and staff to serve a more diverse student body; and more funding to translate research into public service with local governments and grassroots organizations across the state.
We went into the Covid crucible worried about lasting damage to the university’s budget model; we’re coming out of it in an historically strong position to build and serve.
Kevin Guskiewicz is the Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a professor in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science.