Inside the stately, carpeted rooms of the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, where the UNC Board of Governors had gathered last Friday, it was all careful diplomacy. Chairman Benjamin Ruffin made it seem as if nothing unusual was on the agenda, despite the packed audience of TV and newspaper reporters, concerned citizens and students holding protest signs.
In fact, the top agenda item was a vote for a sizable tuition increase for students at five UNC campuses--N.C. State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, East Carolina, UNC-Charlotte and UNC-Wilmington. It's the second time in two years that university leaders have raised tuition, sparking concerns that UNC is backing away from a historic commitment to keeping its schools affordable.
Supporters of the tuition hike cited the tight budget situation in Raleigh, where the General Assembly has opted to spend the state surplus on hurricane recovery efforts. "Nobody wants to raise tuition by any amount," said Finance Committee Chairman Brad Wilson. "But circumstances require it." He didn't mention the booming state and national economy.
After the tuition proposal was approved by a voice vote, board member and former governor Jim Holshouser Jr. tried to put a positive spin on the outcome. The decision did not signal a change in the state's tradition of keeping public university tuition low, he insisted. "Rather, it is a short-term response to extraordinary circumstances."
He didn't say whether the board would be cutting tuition when the short-term crisis is over.
Outside, on the front steps of the Inn, diplomacy was finally abandoned as student leaders angrily denounced the board's decision.
Cliff Webster Jr., student body president at ECU, called UNC board members "heartless, rich, greedy people." He said he wasn't looking forward to going back to Greenville to tell students who'd managed to stay in school after being made homeless by post-hurricane flooding that their reward would be a $300 tuition hike.
The board's decision means students at N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill will pay $600 more in tuition over the next two years. Tuition increases on other campuses will range from $235 to $400.
Student leaders were skeptical of board members' claims that there's not enough money in the state treasury to pay for faculty salaries and other vital campus needs.
"I don't believe there is no money to find," said Jeff Nieman, the non-voting student representative on the Board of Governors.
He said students will continue to fight the board's decision by taking their case to the General Assembly if necessary. Because it's not just money that's at stake when university leaders refuse to lobby for needed state support. The university board's independence is also thrown into question, Nieman said. "The board should strike a balance where they are not simply taking their cues from the legislature on this."