Starving the Beast: The UNC System in 2015

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I’m writing this post from inside a bunker. Outside the storm is raging but I’m hunkered down, amongst my canned goods and bottled water, waiting for the end of the UNC system to arrive. Many of my fellow professors may be looking out their windows right now, and the sun is shining and the birds are singing. But I assure you, in North Carolina, the sky is falling. Fast.

I have been a professor at a state university in North Carolina for the last 8 years. This is the longest I’ve ever held the same job—or any job for that matter. This was my first job out of graduate school, the golden ticket. I was finally on the tenure track!

At the time of my job offer, I was especially excited to join the UNC system, widely considered the “jewel” of North Carolina:

“The [UNC] university system has not only educated thousands, it has been an economic engine, helping spawn entrepreneurs such as Jim Goodnight and Dennis Gillings, attracting huge research grants and making the Research Triangle Park possible.

It was not a given that a largely poor, rural state such as North Carolina would create a great university system. It took a sustained effort by generations of business and civic leaders to make it so.”

There are 17 universities that exist under the UNC umbrella, a move deemed, in 1971, to be a “political miracle” and which ultimately “turned the state of North Carolina into a national leader in higher education, and in the process, transformed the state into one of the most prosperous in the South.” And yes, I felt a true sense of pride when I accepted a job here in 2007. In fact, I had two job offers in 2007 (oh 2007, you were great!): one from Greenville, North Carolina and one from outside Detroit, Michigan. In 2007, North Carolina seemed like an infinitely more attractive choice based solely on the local economy, the amount of higher education funding it appeared to be receiving (at least at my hiring institution), and the overall prestige of the UNC system.

In 2007, pre-Recession academia was failing, but no faster than many other long-standing institutions. And even during the 2008 Recession, when all North Carolina state employees took a paycut and travel money was slashed and low-enrollment classes were cut, the waist cinching felt reasonable and necessary and collegial, like we were all doing our part to muddle through the Recession together. Truly, this was the attitude in 2008. The budget cuts were temporary, we were told. Things will get better, we were told. We just needed to sit tight and be patient and wait for the economy to improve, we were told. Then? Everything would go back to normal.

I’ll admit that I watched these heavy cuts tear through my university from the frazzled standpoint of a pre-tenure mother of two young children. I knew that things were bad, but my biggest concern wasn’t salary compression or gendered wage inequality or the exploitation of fixed term faculty (all major problems at my university). No, to be honest, my biggest concerns during those years were purely selfish: finishing my book and getting more than 3 consecutive hours of sleep at a time. I was exhausted and detached, like so many of my colleagues. We all knew that the cuts seemed unfair but we also knew that things would likely get better soon.

Well, they didn’t. In fact, things got much worse. In 2011, former UNC System President Erskine Bowles warned of the dangers inherent in the radical cuts that were being made to the state’s university system: 

“We not only have to provide an education that is as free from expense as practicable, but we’ve also got to provide a high-quality education…I’ve always believed that low tuition without high quality is no bargain for anyone. It is not a bargain for the student, and it is not a bargain for the taxpayer

Bowles’ words have turned prophetic. The North Carolina legislature’s short term money-saving cuts have had longterm negative impacts on public education in this state. Here are just a few (and trust me, there are far too many to list here):

  • North Carolina has more Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) than any other state in the country (11)  but cuts to higher ed funding in the state are preventing many students from being able to attend these schools. As a result, HBCUs like North Carolina Central University and Elizabeth City College are seeing significant drops in enrollments. Johnny Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, argues that enrollment declines are particularly devastating for HBCUs. He explains:“If you take a school like N.C. A&T, where 50 percent of the country’s undergraduate black engineers come to one school, it would seriously impact our workforce diversity initiative if that school didn’t exist.” Indeed, Elizabeth City College, which lost 10% of its funding in 2013-2014, has been teetering on the edge of being shut down all together.
  • Faculty who can leave, do leave. For example, one of my colleagues, a dear friend and a brilliant scholar, left our department in 2011 in order to chair another English department. He simply could not support his family on the salaries paid to English faculty. Shortly after leaving our department this colleague made an historic discovery, was profiled in The New York Times, and was awarded a research fellowship at Harvard. When you don’t compensate your best faculty, they leave. End of story.
  • Faculty, like me, who have thus far been unable to secure employment outside of North Carolina, have only had a 1.2% pay increase since 2008. That means that tenured faculty like me, who have 8 years of experience teaching the university’s student body and who have won teaching and research awards, are actually earning less today than we did when we were first hired 8 years ago. We are being penalized for our experience and our dedication to the university. I have been explicitly told that the only way I will see a raise is if I snag a competing job offer. Of course, a female colleague of mine did get a competing job offer, in an effort to raise her salary, and my university basically told her to have a nice life. So she’s still in NC, making what I make.
  • Funding for travel has been scaled back or eliminated all together. For example, I have been planning to attend a prestigious academic conference in Ireland this summer, during which I present research from my next book project. Attending conferences like these are essential for scholars to gain feedback and share their research with others. But, there are no more international travel grants, as I just learned recently when I tried to apply for one:travel grant
  • Fixed term instructors are losing contracts at an alarming rate.

The list goes on and on.

But, here are some things the North Carolina General Assembly did vote for recently:

  • allowing guns on school grounds
  • tax breaks on yacht sales
  • $41,000 tax breaks for those making $1 million or more per year
  • restrictive voter registration rules
  • requiring middle school teachers to discuss “sensitive and scientifically discredited abortion issues with students.”

But perhaps what is most offensive in this climate of austerity and sacrifice is when the UNC Board of Governors recently recommended salary increases for the UNC system’s highest paid employees, including presidents and chancellors:

“Under the new parameters, the salary for a UNC president would match that for chancellors at the two flagship research campuses – UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University. The levels could range from a minimum of $435,000 to a maximum of $1 million, with the more likely market range of $647,000 to $876,000”

Maybe I’m biased, but I was always under the impression that the most important commodity at a university is the quality of its teaching staff, not the quality of its administrators. When I graduated from college in 1999 I didn’t think back fondly on all the administrators I had encountered along the way. So what explanation could possibly be given for proposing that university administrators deserve “competitive salaries” but the university’s teachers don’t? Why is the Board of Governors only concerned with attracting and retaining top administrative talent, not top teaching or research talent?

What, exactly, is going on? My university, you see, is very slowly being converted from an institution of education into a business. “Can’t it be both?” some of you might be thinking? “Wouldn’t academia, that dying giant, benefit from trimming the fat and keeping an eye towards pleasing the customer?” The answer, as someone who has slowly watched her university transition from a university into a Wal Mart over the last 8 years, is a resounding no.

Now, I can’t speak for every professor in the UNC system but I can tell you that I’ve witnessed these practices firsthand and they are destroying this university by slowly sucking the lifeblood out of its faculty. That metaphor may feel hyperbolic but trust me, it’s accurate. Indeed, it is the very metaphor employed by North Carolina’s own policy makers.

Back in February 2011, Jay Schalin of the Art Pope Center (which is essentially North Carolina’s own personal Koch Brothers), wrote an article entitled “Starving the Academic Beast,” which details the ways NC can “restore the 17 campus University of North Carolina system to its proper size and role.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 4.30.07 PM

So the stated goal of the Art Pope Center is, indeed, to “starve the beast.” But one has to wonder: since the North Carolina State constitution states that “The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense” AND  since public education has consistently proven to be the one enterprise that consistently provides a significant return on investment, then what THE HELL are these people doing and WHY are they doing it? Do they simply wish to starve the “beast” down into a nice, lean fighting weight? No, my friends, they want us to starve to death. And they are succeeding.

It’s also worth pointing our that  3 of the 10 most gerrymandered districts in the country are right here in North Carolina:

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 4.20.55 PM

That means we will likely have to accept the current policies (which only seem to be getting worse and worse) until at least 2016. This sad state of affairs has been incredibly demoralizing for me and for my colleagues. Many folks are resigned to the way things are, shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Why fight? There’s nothing to be done.” Fixed term faculty, whose precarity renders them most vulnerable to the whims of our legislature and, ironically, makes them least able to speak up about it, are worried about paying their bills. As my former colleague, John Steen, a visiting professor in my department who, despite being a brilliant scholar and talented teacher, must now pursue a different line of work, writes:

“Currently, over 52 percent of ECU faculty are fixed-term, and that number’s rising. This means that over half of the ECU faculty can leave the classroom after final exams uncertain of whether they’ll return for the next semester. Nationwide, 31 percent of part-time faculty earn near or below the federal poverty level. For raising a family, paying rent, and for supporting students throughout their ECU careers, that’s not nearly enough.”

Tenure track faculty, who have yet to submit their tenure materials, are worried about jeopardizing their one chance at academic job security (most of us on the tenure track are aware that we are lucky to have any job at all). We’re too scared to speak and too scared to be silent.

Well, that’s not exactly true.

As a result of these draconian policies, which both implicitly and explicitly seek to “starve” the great beast that is public education in North Carolina, some of us have started to get mad. And we’re trying to make some noise. And a lot of us have tenure,  the one thing, so far, that the General Assembly hasn’t taken away.

So this post is for you, my tenured friends. We are small in number—indeed, we are an endangered species. But I am calling on you now to speak up and get involved. Talk to your colleagues, your department chairs and your deans. Write letters to the editor of your local paper and to your student paper. Write to your legislators. Talk to your students about this–if anyone should be outraged about having to pay more tuition for less and less instruction it should be them.

But really, shouldn’t this outrage all of us? An affordable public education is the promise we made, collectively, as a state, many decades ago. We pay taxes for this education. This university system belongs to US, the people of North Carolina. So why are we allowing this wonderful, economy-boosting, prestige-raising, research-generating “beast” to starve? Are we really helpless? Have we really been stripped of all options? No. Because as long as we can speak and type and scream, we can fight. Won’t you join us?


44 thoughts on “Starving the Beast: The UNC System in 2015

    buridan said:
    May 7, 2015 at 10:08 am

    Starve the Beast… that’s straight from Bush 1…. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now. It is basically just a means of wealth transfer from the states to the wealthy.

    Ryan Holifield said:
    May 7, 2015 at 11:34 am

    Excellent blog – thank you for writing this. Indeed, with a few minor tweaks here and there, this would be an accurate account of my own experience. I began my faculty position in 2007, in the University of Wisconsin system (UW-Milwaukee), and we’ve had basically the same experience. One specific constituency I might add to the call-to-arms: we somehow need to reach parents, and particularly those in affluent suburbs. Most of them, I suspect, are still assuming they will have good, affordable state university systems to which they can send their kids. If they’re not outraged, then they don’t understand the implications of the “starve the beast” agenda that is being implemented systematically in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and other states. And I suspect they might be able to reach legislators more effectively than faculty ever will. Again, thank you for taking the time to write this very thoughtful and eloquent post, and I hope many people read it.

    Jenni said:
    May 7, 2015 at 12:07 pm

    Amen, sister. Private institutions are also following the bad “Pope” advice. I just left William Peace University after eight years of service. Couldn’t take the constant arguing with administration on how to run my department. Fuck’em. I’d rather work at McDonalds than feel like a smarmy, unethical asswipe knowing that the curriculum continued to be “dumbed” down to bring in unqualified students for their government loans. Also could take being asked to raise the cap on classes so we could cut down on adjuncts (which were hired to fill the shoes of tenure faculty that had be canned).

    Faculty MUST speak up. Administration and the BOT are gaining too much control over faculty governance and turning us all into ostriches. We need to pull our head out of the sand and take a stand.

    Angela said:
    May 7, 2015 at 4:24 pm

    This blog post really hit home. I started at a NC institution at the same time you did. I never thought about the possibility of not getting a raise…it’s painful.

    Angela Leonard said:
    May 7, 2015 at 5:30 pm

    Students need to start a class action lawsuit and cite the NC Consitution. Tuition is now almost unaffordable to most. They will need help to find lawyers to take this on. Faculty surely know some. I think suing, suing, suing, is the only answer to much of this right wing agenda. Keep them busy in the courts in response to the laws that they pass.

      Kenny Widmerpool said:
      May 7, 2015 at 6:48 pm


    Jim O'Hara, UNC-Chapel Hill faculty said:
    May 7, 2015 at 6:25 pm

    Your citation of the plan to pay system presidents more is outdone by UNC-Chapel Hill’s being willing to pay a new *assistant* football coach as much or more than those presidents.

    “Gene Chizik has agreed to become Larry Fedora’s new defensive coordinator, multiple sources confirmed to Inside Carolina on Thursday evening. The story was first reported by ESPN.

    The contract is three years guaranteed and totals in excess of $750,000 per year, sources confirmed.”

    So Many Weekend Links! | Gerry Canavan said:
    May 8, 2015 at 9:10 am

    […] * Starving the beast: The UNC system in 2015. […]

    Trying Hard said:
    May 8, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    I work for a UNC system school, too. What I see: Colleagues that are pouring their hearts and souls into trying to ensure the quality of education and support doesn’t suffer, at their own expense — mentally, physically, financially.

    We handle outrageous workloads, answer hundreds of emails per day, try to promote programs with shoestring advertising budgets, and sincerely advocate for and care about our students. But when we go home at the end of the day, we are sick, tired and emotionally drained. I have advanced degrees and a decade of 5-star performance reviews, but I get paid so little that I still rely on help from my parents and grandparents to pay rent and buy groceries. I’ve been invited to teach at the university, but if I accepted my salary would actually decrease. I love North Carolina, but I may have to leave. Soon.

    nationalmobilization said:
    May 8, 2015 at 10:35 pm

    Reblogged this on National Mobilization For Equity and commented:
    cautionary tales of trials and tribulation for the future of higher education

      jorna2015 said:
      May 14, 2015 at 6:41 am

      I can tell you that it’s the same in Denmark, and probably the rest of Europe.

    former student said:
    May 10, 2015 at 8:39 am

    I can tell you that the number of administrators at my college was mind boggling. Classes were held in 4 buildings. Admissions, finance, and administation occupied another 4. Back then it didn’t make sense to me why the college needed so much space for administrators that they would shut down small programs to make space for offices but now I get it. The college needed that space to hire all of the English majors. Smaller engineering programs were cut. Small class size higher level math programs were cut. Programs sponsored by local businesses and industry were cut the most. I found out that the more a college ditches programs that help businesses grow, the bigger it gets and the more money it can request so that it can hire more former english majors. It’s really quite simple. Now, the State is requiring that colleges be less top heavy and be more productive for the business community (which helps generate revenue for the State) and I don’t see that as a bad thing. Does the lack of funding create hardships, oh you bet. Who suffers the most? The people at the bottom for now. When the schools get smarter and stop paying top admins rediculous amounts of money and start having to run more efficiently, then things will improve because they have no choice. But for now we’re stuck until my alma mater has one building for administration and 7 for classes. At that point I certainly wouldnt mind more of my tax money going to fund education because it would actually go to funding education, not administration.

    Mary Lenard said:
    May 11, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    Everything you’ve said is true for the University of Wisconsin System too. We haven’t had any raise (cost of living or merit) in almost 10 years. I personally know at least one faculty member who works part time at CarMax to make ends meet. (And that’s a TENURE-TRACK faculty member, not an adjunct.) It’s a cruel irony that every year we have to go through the pointless exercise of assigning everyone a merit rating when no merit pay has been available for as long as anyone can remember. The legislature forced our campus to raise its teaching load for faculty and academic staff, though, so we are working harder for our reduced incomes, and we are paying more for our benefits too, so the “low salary but great benefits” formula that helped us to recruit faculty in the past, is now no longer true either. The Teabaggers in charge of our governor’s administration and the legislature are circling around our fully-funded Wisconsin Retirement System like hungry wolves, so our retirement pensions are even at risk. They would love to be able to grab that money to make up for their failed economic policies. The proposed $300 million budget cut from Governor Walker means that things will get worse–a lot worse–not better. The faculty who are in the more competitive fields are leaving the UW system in droves. It is a sad decline for what used to be one of the most admired university systems in the U.S.

    Chanamaro said:
    May 11, 2015 at 9:08 pm

    Reblogged this on chanamaro and commented:
    Draconian policies certainly have no place anywhere on this place we call precious earth, leave alone on a learning institution of repute. Indeed, draconian policies are at best “hyperbolic”, irrational, and unacceptable in any society. I really feel for you Professor and all your tenured friends out there.

    qamarabbass said:
    May 12, 2015 at 12:27 am

    Reblogged this on qamarabbass.

    MelEllsworth said:
    May 12, 2015 at 12:48 am

    Great post. Disturbing and unfortunately commonplace across the U.S. I’ll share this on my network. Best wishes.

    MelEllsworth said:
    May 12, 2015 at 12:49 am

    Reblogged this on Year One and commented:
    You have to read this. Great post. Don’t ignore the systematic dismantling of education in the U.S.

    jelmak1234 said:
    May 12, 2015 at 5:05 am

    Reblogged this on jelmak1234.

    petisblog said:
    May 12, 2015 at 6:15 am

    Reblogged this on petisblog.

    Bears, Goats, and Strawberries said:
    May 12, 2015 at 6:36 am

    Reblogged this on bears goats and strawberries and commented:
    Jesus, when I went to college in 1991 the “professors” did not even know the countries of the world; yet where teaching “world geography”… And you want my FUCKING MONEY?!

    sweetsound said:
    May 12, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    So our skyrocketing tuition costs, which we will be paying back for most of our lives, is going toward… Administrators million dollar salaries. And apparently sports programs. Great.

    Best of luck to you in finding a better situation, whatever form that ends up taking. It doesn’t seem fair for anyone.

    TopInteresting said:
    May 12, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    Reblogged this

    ccree said:
    May 12, 2015 at 10:11 pm

    As a longtime resident of the state (North Carolina) I can say that the university system has been on a long ego-track of overrating its importance and value. While some truly great things are done in the university system, many graduates have an bloated view of themselves and their education. The people who pay the bills (the taxpayers) are annoyed and they should be. Time to cut back and trim down.

    Dr. Ravinder Ozha said:
    May 13, 2015 at 2:34 am

    Reblogged this on Dr. Ravinder Ozha, PhD and commented:
    Starving the Beast: The UNC System in 2015

    virat yash said:
    May 13, 2015 at 6:03 am

    अति उत्त म

    EnviroSolutions said:
    May 13, 2015 at 8:29 am

    Excellent writing and i totally agree that the quality of teaching staff is what makes a university great.

    ramzan66 said:
    May 13, 2015 at 10:02 am

    Reblogged this on ramzan66's Blog.

    Ronald Baker said:
    May 13, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    Reblogged this on Unchain The Tree and commented:
    See more on

    fzheng01 said:
    May 14, 2015 at 5:40 am

    Reblogged this on Decorative Art.

    insanitydrugaddict said:
    May 14, 2015 at 7:22 am

    Reblogged this on Insanity Drug Addict.

    vnp1210 said:
    May 14, 2015 at 6:07 pm

    So discouraging. This country is spiraling downward fast.

    janetgates said:
    May 14, 2015 at 6:08 pm

    Reblogged this on Bruceleerichardson.

    Ace Worldwide News Group said:
    May 15, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    Reblogged this on ' Ace Blog & Share News '.

    lisakelleytherapy said:
    May 25, 2015 at 6:19 pm

    Many good points of view expressed here in response to your well-written post. I am a graduate of both UNC-Charlotte and of UW-Madison — both great state universities that introduced me to some fine teachers and the world of ideas. At 57, I still pursue my education with a passion. I am forever grateful for the experiences I have had. Yet, It makes me so sad to see how teachers are not properly compensated for all that they give students. Thank you for everything you do.

    razonia_ said:
    May 30, 2015 at 8:34 pm

    Reblogged this on Fashion is not dead.

    princyguptasweetgirl095ice said:
    June 2, 2015 at 2:43 am

    Reblogged this on GLOBAL TECHNOLOGY.

    Angel 4 Light said:
    June 7, 2015 at 1:19 am

    Reblogged this on Angel 4 Light.

    Uy Do said:
    June 11, 2015 at 7:38 pm

    Reblogged this on MY VIETNAM.

    VanessaVaile said:
    June 12, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    @AmandaAnnKlein is not an #adjunct. So what. Read what she has to say. We’re all in this HE mess together: don’t #burnitdown, Work together. That walled compound, lifeboat mentality is counter-productive.

    prachidhaka said:
    June 24, 2015 at 5:17 am

    Reblogged this on readwhichnovels.

    BCHQ said:
    August 6, 2015 at 7:11 pm

    Reblogged this on An Alchemist's Journey…..

    assata_nur said:
    December 5, 2015 at 6:19 pm

    Reblogged this on tpmcocreator and commented:
    Endangered educators & education, you think? Action required.

    NEARLY WORKING MYSELF TO DEATH by Kim Akass | CST Online said:
    November 10, 2016 at 10:40 am

    […] For an account of what is happening in a particular area of US Higher Education read Amanda Ann Klein’s latest blog – Starving the Beast. […]

    […] For an account of what is happening in a particular area of US Higher Education read Amanda Ann Klein’s latest blog – Starving the Beast. […]

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