NC budget plan would give millions to UNC School of Civic Life, cut law school funding

While a new School of Civic Life and Leadership would be established at UNC-Chapel Hill and receive millions in state funding under a budget proposal released Monday from the state Senate, two other schools at the university would see their budgets cut.

As in the House budget released last month, the Senate budget would allocate $2 million in state funding in each of the next two fiscal years to the School of Civic Life, which the UNC Board of Trustees proposed in January and has been a topic of controversy and contention at the university ever since.

Meanwhile, the Senate budget appears to reduce state funding to both the university’s School of Law and the School of Government in each of the upcoming fiscal years.

Those provisions to cut funding were not included in the House budget, and the Senate’s proposal seems to echo similar cuts proposed by the chamber in previous years, which ultimately were not as severe under the budget deals reached those years.

The Senate’s budget bill is expected to be voted on by the end of the week. A final compromise budget between the two chambers could pass in June.

Proposed funding for UNC School of Civic Life

Funds allocated in the Senate budget would be used to “create and operate” the School of Civic Life, per the Senate’s committee report on the budget, including hiring faculty and staff.

Both the Senate’s and the House’s budget proposals for the School of Civic Life, which has yet to be formally established at the university, fall short of the funding amounts UNC provost Christopher Clemens suggested in a budget planning document drafted earlier this year.

That document, reported by The News & Observer, included a potential request for $5 million in recurring funds for the 2023-2024 fiscal year. The document stated that the university expects any state-appropriated funds to the school will be “matched with private support.” Specific donors or sources of that financial support were not listed in the planning document.

As in the House budget bill, the Senate bill states that if the funds provided in the budget are “insufficient” to establish the school, the university “shall expend sufficient additional funds to achieve that purpose.”

The bill would officially establish the school, which would offer courses “on the development of democratic competencies informed by American history and the American political tradition, with the purpose of fostering public discourse and civil engagement necessary to promote democracy and benefit society.”

The school would house the university’s Program for Public Discourse, which was criticized in its planning stages over alleged conservative leanings, influences and funding sources. In describing the need they see for establishing the School of Civic Life, the university’s trustees have said the school would make the Program for Public Discourse more robust.

Since the Board of Trustees adopted a resolution supporting the development of the school in January, university faculty have criticized both the school and its proposed purpose, as well as the process by which the trustees introduced it.

Board of Trustees chair David Boliek appeared on the “Fox and Friends” morning show shortly after he introduced the resolution, saying the school would “remedy” the university’s lack of “right-of-center views.”

Faculty at the university say they were not informed of the board’s plans to propose a school, nor consulted on the proposal, which many believe contradicts typical governance structures at the university, in which new academic programs traditionally come from faculty — not the trustees.

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz wrote in a Jan. 27 campus message that “any proposed degree program or school will be developed and led by our faculty, deans, and provost.”

Funding cut to schools of government, law

As the School of Civic Life would receive millions in funding under the Senate’s proposed budget, two existing schools at the university would lose funding.

The Senate would cut funding to both the School of Government and the School of Law by $2.5 million in each of the next two fiscal years.

Those provisions, which were not in the House’s proposed budget, appear similar to previous cuts to the law school’s funding proposed by the Senate in prior years, including 2015 and 2017.

In 2015, The N&O reported, the Senate proposed a $3 million funding cut to the school, which was ultimately not approved. In 2017, the Senate proposed a $4 million cut, which was negotiated down to a $500,000 cut.

Amid the proposed cuts in 2017, alumni of the law school rallied against the provisions, reaching out to legislators “in droves” to make their case against the cuts, The N&O reported.

In both years, as is the case this year, the House did not include cuts in their proposed budgets.