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Report Presses UNC System for Greater Efficiency

RALEIGH, N.C.—North Carolina’s public university system should increase its focus on efficiency as students and taxpayers alike grapple with the rising cost of higher education, a report Wednesday to state legislators said.

The recommendations came from the Legislature’s Program Evaluation Division, which is responsible for checking into how well state services are being delivered. That includes measuring the performance of chancellors who run each of the 17 University of North Carolina campuses and in part on how well schools meet academic and operational efficiency goals. A top university system executive said in a written response that it will look at tying efficiency improvements to chancellors’ performance evaluations.

The UNC system has saved $101.2 million since 2006 on nearly a dozen efficiency efforts including bulk purchasing and energy savings, the report said. The $26 million a year the universities are saving is expected to double in coming years as the changes fully take hold, said Charles Perusse, the university system’s chief operating officer.

But the state schools should be able to do better at spotting savings, the report said. The public university system isn’t unified in how it approaches savings, leaving campuses to act on their own, said Pam Taylor, the report’s principal evaluator.

Unless the central administrators coordinate efficiency efforts “each campus will continue to do what’s in its own best interest without considering how their actions may duplicate actions on another campus,” Taylor said.

The UNC system’s governing board in February approved a five-year strategic plan that included maximizing operational and academic efficiency.

“While we know there is room for improvement and are receptive to improved metrics and a more comprehensive approach to operational efficiency, UNC has a strong track record on which to build,” Perusse said in a written response to the report.

About a third of the UNC system’s $7 billion budget comes from state taxpayers. The $2.6 billion in state funding is $126 million lower than Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget staff estimated would be necessary to keep programs operating at current levels plus inflation. The 2013-14 budget is set to be virtually the same. The cuts are on top of budget reductions of $414 million approved two years ago.

But heavy state spending cuts are the national norm, the report said, and North Carolina’s cut of less than 20 percent is at the low end of the spectrum. North Carolina’s constitution requires that higher education be as close to free as possible

The investigators looked at spending, payrolls and the number of students served at each university campus. Those rated among the best on three efficiency measures were campuses in Asheville, Charlotte, Chapel Hill, Wilmington, Boone, Raleigh and Cullowhee. Those needing the most efficiency improvement were Elizabeth City State, North Carolina A&T, UNC-Greensboro and UNC School of the Arts.

The university system will report on its ongoing and improved efficiency measures before the General Assembly’s new session starts in May, Perusse said.

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