UNC President urges universities to focus on repairs of existing buildings

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Public universities should focus on repairing their existing buildings before pushing for new ones, UNC President Erskine Bowles was quoted in the News & Observer.

Speaking to members of the UNC system’s Board of Governors, Bowles said the system’s next budget request – to be submitted to state leaders in November – will be austere. New projects won’t likely be viewed with favor when the system has more than $2 billion in backlogged repair needs for steam pipes, air conditioning systems, roofs and other infrastructure.

The News & Observer article reported how the UNC system’s struggles to fund even a small piece of the repairs and renovations it needs each year. The system needs billions to fix its building stock, even after a decade of construction fueled by a $2.5 billion bond issue that state voters approved 10 years ago. Universities would need $2.1 billion from the state this year to adequately address all of the system’s repair and renovation needs, according to UNC system data.

“Certainly we’re not going to get anything like that, but it shows you how much deferred maintenance you have,” Bowles said, adding that campuses delay repair projects too often. “It’s easy to say you can do it next year.”

Bowles’ comments on the maintenance backlog came during an analysis of next year’s budget climate. He’s telling campus leaders to prepare for 10 percent budget cuts – a cautionary step as the state deals with a budget shortfall now estimated at $3.5 billion. “I hope it’s less,” Bowles said. “But the arithmetic is pretty compelling.”

Bowles said the system budget will largely fund existing programs. He noted just three new line items he’s willing to push for:

–$3.5 million to continue development of a new dental school at East Carolina University.

–$1 million in each of the next two years for a new joint nanoscience program at N.C. A&T State University and UNC-Greensboro.

–Some funding for a new system initiative linking enrollment growth to graduation and retention success.

James Holshouser, the former governor and longtime UNC system board member, said university leaders can’t hide from the realities of the budget.

“We’re all collectively in denial right now,” Holshouser said. “We need to get ourselves ready. Every time I see a request for a new program now, I get a little shiver. I see the folks at [UNC-Chapel Hill] have deferred construction of the law school. I think that’s a lesson we’re all going to have to learn.”

N.C. Central University Chancellor Charlie Nelms said he agrees with Bowles’ no-new-construction approach – to a point. But Nelms argues that some new facilities are vital if campuses want to meet certain goals instituted by the system, such as the graduation and retention initiative.

“Take housing. For a school like mine, we know there’s a correlation between students living on campus and retention,” said Nelms, whose campus still hopes to build one or more residence halls in coming years. “But it’s a balancing act.”
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