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'Heart of a university:' Students, faculty question fate of humanities programs at UNC-Greensboro

A student holds a cardboard sign that says profits over people is a zero sum game. Another sign beside them reads UNC Greed with green dollar sign symbols.
Brianna Atkinson
/
WUNC
A student holds a sign while walking to UNC-Greensboro's Alumni House during a Nov. 16 protest on campus.

A group of students and faculty gathered, chanting and holding signs, at UNC-Greensboro late last month. They were just outside the university’s Alumni House, where the last scheduled UNC Board of Governor's meeting of the semester was being held.

“Board of Governors, can you hear us?”

“How do you spell greedy? U-N-C-G”

“Save the G,” the crowd repetitively chanted.

Students, faculty and community members protest in front of UNC-Greensboro's Bell Tower on Nov. 16.
Brianna Atkinson
/
WUNC
Students, faculty and community members protest in front of UNC-Greensboro's Bell Tower on Nov. 16.

This was the second protest on UNC-Greensboro’s campus of the semester. It was an early November morning, with a crowd of about 30 students, faculty and community members. The first was in October and brought out about 250 students.

Both protests had the same message: an urge for UNC Greensboro administration to put an end to the university’s ongoing academic program review (APR).

Omar Gonzalez is one of those concerned students. They’re studying psychology with a minor in women’s and gender studies.

To Gonzalez, a program review means program cuts, and they think the departments most at risk are in the humanities.

“(The academic program review) directly affects me. It directly affects my boyfriend. It directly affects people that I know,” Gonzalez said. “So, it’s very important for me to be out here, because cutting these (programs) would stifle a lot of options that people have for these different careers we can go into.”

About 3,900 students, faculty and alumni have signed a petition echoing these concerns. The petition was started by UNCG’s American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chapter.

Students, faculty and other UNC-Greensboro community members gathered to protest the university's academic program review on Nov. 16.
Brianna Atkinson
/
WUNC
Students, faculty and other UNC-Greensboro community members gathered to protest the university's academic program review on Nov. 16.

The AAUP said the academic program review and possible cuts harms the university’s mission. But in his regular state of the university address in October, Chancellor Franklin Gilliam said the university can’t go on without changes.

“Both nationally and locally, the world of higher education has experienced a sea change, and it’s right here at our university — it’s right on our doorstep,” Gilliam said. “So, it seems illogical to me to believe then that the appropriate response to a profoundly changing world is to double down on the status quo.”

Over the past five years, enrollment has decreased by about 10% at UNC-Greensboro.

Over 85% of UNC-Greensboro's budget depends on enrollment, which has gone down 10% between 2017 and 2022.
UNC-Greensboro
Over 85% of UNC-Greensboro's budget depends on enrollment, which has gone down 10% between 2017 and 2022.

Gilliam attributes that decline to nationally changing opinions about higher education, birth rate declines and competition within the UNC System.

“94% of our students come from North Carolina,” Gilliam said. “There are 16 public universities in North Carolina and what, 10 million people? And of that 10 million, fewer of them are 18 than used to be. I mean, do the math.”

At UNC-Greensboro, enrollment declines over the past few years add up to a loss of over $22 million in tuition and fee revenue. More than 85% of the school’s budget depends on student enrollment.

“Given that 71% of our budget is spent on academic affairs, we must review our academic portfolio,” Gilliam said in a message to faculty, “Not only that, but it is also a best practice and UNCG has not engaged in a comprehensive review in well over 15 years.”

Academic affairs take up nearly three-fourths of UNC-Greensboro's operating budget.
UNC-Greensboro
Academic affairs take up nearly three-fourths of UNC-Greensboro's operating budget.

Gilliam said the introduction and enhanced competition for students of the system’s four NC promise schools – which only charges in-state students $500 for tuition – and changes to the UNC System’s funding model for its universities have also contributed to this loss.

As a result of the steep enrollment declines and resulting budget losses, leaves the university no choice but to make changes, Gilliam said.

“It’s not about cutting programs, it is about sharpening our focus to allow us to invest in programs that are meeting student demands and meeting labor market demands,” Gilliam said at a November Board of Governor's meeting. “... and we may have to discontinue some programs that just don’t produce for us at an institutional level high ROI (return on investment).”

In order to see which programs do so, Gilliam said it is necessary to do an academic program review.

“But we can’t if we’re distributing the money in a way that everybody gets a trophy,” he said. “... we’re not after any particular set of learnings, but what we are saying is if we’re going to be able to invest in what makes us competitive, we’re going to have to make tough choices.”

UNC-Greensboro's estimates future enrollment numbers for undergraduate and graduate students. The university's enrollment numbers are one of the driving forces behind potential program cuts.
UNC-Greensboro
UNC-Greensboro's estimates future enrollment numbers for undergraduate and graduate students. The university's enrollment numbers are one of the driving forces behind potential program cuts.

According to the university, the APR will take into account “student demand, community distinction and grant funding.”

The university has hired rpk GROUP to help with this process. The consulting firm’s mission is to help a university develop a better business model to “meet the needs of students and employers.”

The same firm was used by West Virginia University this year. WVU has also had its share of budget problems and underwent an academic program review. The end result was the cutting of several programs, including its entire foreign language department. This led to protests and walkouts from WVU students and faculty, an overwhelming vote of no confidence in the university’s president, and stoked national media reports and outrage.

Veronica Grossi, a Latin American literature professor at UNCG, is worried the university is headed in a similar direction.

“The arts and humanities play a central role (in a well-rounded education),” Grossi said. “What it looks like is this administration has targeted the heart of what is a university, because you can never quantify a sensibility.”

Grossi is not alone in her concerns. Throughout the UNC System, people have been questioning how much importance certain professorships hold.

In this year’s state budget, the North Carolina General Assembly made changes to what disciplines can be awarded distinguished professorships. The state will now only support distinguished professorships in STEM or science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

This includes areas of agriculture, natural resources, computer science, engineering, engineering technology, biological sciences, math and statistics, military technology, physical sciences, health professions and nursing – according to the UNC System.

The decision was finalized at an October UNC Board of Governors meeting, where some members expressed concern for what kind of message it was sending. One of the concerned BOG members was longtime Republican donor Art Pope.

“I support the humanities, liberal arts, natural sciences – all areas of academic study that the university system offers. Not just STEM,” said Pope, who also served as former Governor Pat McCrory’s Budget Director. “... I think the university's role and mission is to offer broad-based education that students choose when they elect their courses and majors.”

The UNC Board of Governors, however, have also contributed to this growing pattern of prioritizing STEM.

Last year, the system changed how it funds its universities. The performance-based funding model awards universities for graduating students on time and with less debt.

The UNC Board of Governor's performance-based funding model was approved last year.
UNC Board Of Governors Meeting Materials
The UNC Board of Governor's performance-based funding model was approved last year.

It also includes an increase in funding for STEM and medical fields that’s higher than other departments. The system said the change addresses the workforce needs in the state, as well as the additional cost it takes to provide these programs.

This is the change Gilliam noted in his university address as particularly harmful to regional universities like UNC Greensboro, which started out as a liberal arts college for women.

“Not surprisingly, the curriculum was not STEM-oriented,” Gilliam said during his October state of campus address. “The gendered nature of the university, if you think about our strongest programs and where they are… are in the so-called helping professions. And we do a great job, but we're not going to be rewarded for that in the funding model.”

UNC-Greensboro shares its budget allocations in an October presentation to the university's Graduate Student Association.
UNC-Greensboro
UNC-Greensboro shares its budget allocations in an October presentation to the university's Graduate Student Association.
Chart showing enrollment change funding for UNC System Board of Governors. The system lost a total of $52.4 million dollars in funds due to lower enrollment at its institutions.
UNC System Board of Governors
The General Assembly decreased the UNC System's funding by $52.4 million due to lower enrollment.

The UNC System did include a temporary 4.5% cap on funding loss for three universities — UNC-Asheville, UNC-Pembroke and UNC-Greensboro — when it passed the new funding model.

That cap saved UNC-Greensboro $2.3 million this year.

The cap isn’t enough to address the university’s overall enrollment losses. UNCG administration is hoping the academic program review will.

“It’ll allow us to achieve better fiscal planning,” Gilliam said during his state of campus address in October. “It will align the academic portfolio with student demands and workforce needs, and enhance accessibility for academic success of our students.”

But this same process has led to disappointment and frustration for students, like history and museum studies graduate student Azariah Journey.

“We've been lied to so much and just so disrespected as students,” Journey said. “I can't even explain how disrespected and just how used we feel. We feel like we're a number. We feel like they don't care about us. I mean, we’ve been told UNCG is a business and we’re a customer.”

According to the university’s APR timeline, deans are currently making recommendations for which programs should be discontinued. The final decision will be made by the chancellor, who plans to announce changes in February 2024.

Brianna Atkinson is WUNC’s 2024 Fletcher Fellow and covers higher education in partnership with Open Campus.