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Sunday, July 14, 2024

N.C. House budget promotes STEM at UNC Chapel Hill

The North Carolina House of Representatives’ draft budget includes a plan for UNC Chapel Hill to establish a new College of Applied Science and Technology.

Critics say it would encroach on the turf of nearby N.C. State University, which is known for its engineering and technology emphasis.

The relevant budget-bill provision says the new college should take in “academic degree programs in any postsecondary subject area defined by the [federal] Classification of Instructional Programs … under CIP codes 03, 11, 14, 15, 26, 27, 31 and 40.”

Those codes include natural resources and conservation, computer and information science, engineering and engineering technologies, biological sciences, math and statistics, parks and recreation and the physical sciences.

The plan has quickly sparked criticism, including from N.C. Sen. Jim Perry, a Kinston Republican who contends it will duplicate existing programs at N.C. State University and other campuses. The N.C. Senate’s proposed budget is not expected to include a new college in Chapel Hill, reflecting dominant Republican leaders desire to spend less money than peers in the N.C. House.

Also, some UNC Chapel Hill faculty members say that the legislative effort bypasses the normal process for launching new academic programs.

State lawmakers are considering revisions to the two-year budget approved last year. Decisions are likely over the next month or during what is called the legislature’s “short session.”

The UNC System traditionally has protected the turf of some campuses, such as the well-regarded engineering programs at N.C. State University. Its campus is about 15 miles from the Chapel Hill site.

But the lines are increasingly blurring. UNC Chapel Hill has a Department of Applied Physical Sciences that’s about a decade old. It offers a Ph.D. in materials science and an undergraduate minor in applied sciences and engineering. This fall, it’s adding a bachelor’s program in applied sciences to prepare students to “identify, formulate, and solve complex engineering problems by applying principles of engineering, science and mathematics.”

The bill’s wording doesn’t order UNC Chapel Hill to launch any new degree offerings but suggests reorganizing existing programs. The applied-science department and most of UNC Chapel Hill’s traditional-science departments are part of the College of Arts and Sciences.

The same section of the House budget also orders UNC Chapel Hill to undertake an academic program review and “consider consolidating or eliminating programs that have a low return on investment or low enrollment.” Any savings are to go into programs that “have a high return on investment or high enrollment,” the bill says.

This comes as UNC Greensboro and UNC Asheville are planning to cut various STEM and humanities programs, respectively, in response to enrollment declines.

By contrast, enrollment at Chapel Hill was 32,234 students this past fall, a 10-year high.

The order to conduct the review assigns the job to the campus board of trustees, which traditionally have had a mostly advisory role in curriculum and program issues.

At UNCG and Asheville, the program reviews have been driven by chancellors and provosts. Last week, Asheville Chancellor Kimberly van Noort said that UNC System leaders, not campus officials, have the final say over whether a program lives or dies.

(This story previously appeared in the North Carolina Tribune, an affiliated publication.)

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