Austerity Cuts Are Not Inevitable

The threats by UNC BOG and by the administrators of UNC campuses to impose austerity measures of job cuts, furloughs, and programming eliminations on UNC System workers, using the argument that these reductions are necessary due to the financial losses of the UNC System, operated as a business, are profoundly flawed. There is nothing inevitable about the particular course of action that UNC leaders now claim is the required, natural and only option. They demand the budget of austerity; we, the employees and students of the UNC System, say instead, no. 

Another UNC System is possible not only because vast numbers of people can imagine a more just and sustainable way of dealing with this financial and public health crisis than the one that UNC leaders have come up with. Another University is possible also because our actual economic reality demands it. The determination of the UNC administration to drive the UNC System as a profit-generating business has proven to be a catastrophe, both financially and in terms of public health.

University Workers Are A Major Source of Economic Prosperity

The employees of the UNC System are not a burden to the state. We are major contributors to the state’s prosperity through our work as researchers, teachers, inventors, entrepreneurs, consumers, and community leaders. The value of our intellectual property collectively amounts to billions of dollars. And yet, through their threatened cuts, the UNC BOG and UNC administrative officials would effectively disassemble the UNC System that not only we but previous generations of Tar Heel researchers, innovators and teachers have worked to create. It was not created by political conservatives, or by business leaders, although some have been extraordinarily generous, and to them we are grateful.

As Williamson, Imbroscio and Alperovitz pointed out, 

[I]t is intuitively obvious to most citizens that moderately sized university towns, state capitals, and even towns near long-established active military bases and prisons have greater economic stability than areas primarily dependent on private investment (...) Such areas are in many cases recession proof (...) It is noteworthy that of the 62 state capitals and major public university towns with populations between 25,000 and 250,000 listed, under 13 percent have experienced population declines of 5% or more since 1980 – roughly 30% less than the nationwide rate of community decline over that period. [10]

The cities and towns in which UNC campuses are situated are wonderful examples of this stability. What would Charlotte, Asheville, Greenville, Boone, Greensboro, Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Winston-Salem be without their University campuses and employees – even functioning as well as they possibly can today by remotely teaching students and carrying on with their research work on behalf of innovation and, yes, job creation? And when the pandemic is over, we will be the engine of economic prosperity for North Carolina that  the empirical social science evidence indicates we can be so long as the UNC BOG doesn’t run us into the ground.

Why is there this impulsive tendency by those in power to kill the golden goose? Do they really believe that imposing 25% or even 50% cuts to our jobs and incomes, furloughing us, and eliminating nationally prominent programs are going to be the economic solution to a problem they helped create?

The 1% Can Afford It; No One Else Can

The “1%” of the state’s population, the economic upper-class of North Carolina, can easily afford to “sacrifice” to return what they should never have taken from the people of the state of North Carolina to begin with – its long-term capacity to sustain its public education system. As we have already shown, the bill from this elite is past due to the people of North Carolina and the amount is $12 billion over the last six years. Asking the people of North Carolina to bear additional burdens is an insult at a time when 11.1 percent of the NC labor force are out of work or underemployed. [11] Almost 260,000 people in the state have come down with Covid, resulting in more than 4,000 deaths. [12] 14.4% of NC households, many of them with children, don’t have enough food to eat on a daily basis, more than 18,000 people are facing imminent eviction and risk losing their medical insurance because they have been laid off. [13] Large numbers can’t afford to pay for all their food, rent and medicines, and have to choose between them. Many are in debt due to spiraling medical costs and student loans. 

Many of us working for the UNC System, particularly housekeepers, clerical staff and physical plant workers, are among those most seriously affected by substandard wages, insufficient sick leave if we are infected by Covid, and a lack of adequate PPE. [14] A large proportion of those thus afflicted are women, many of them Black and Brown women, whose rates of infection and deaths due to Covid-19 are three times that of the majority population. [15]

These large and small tragedies are happening not just because of the pandemic, but also because of the huge inequalities generated by the last 40 years of conservative rule nationally and at the state level. The United States, and North Carolina within it, have the highest degree of income inequality after taxes and transfers in the developed world; the US has a regressive personal income and corporate tax structure which particularly favors the wealthiest 1%. [16] In early 2020, the wealthiest 1% of the US population owned 31.2% of the wealth, while the bottom 50% owned only 1.4%. [17] In fact, the wealthiest 20 Americans possess as much wealth as the bottom half of U.S. households combined. [18]

These obscene inequalities have arisen from a sordid history of deindustrialization, financial speculation, union-busting, and fraud. The so-called 2007-2008 “subprime” crisis led more than 10 million homeowners to be foreclosed on between 2006-2014 to hustlers in investment banks and hedge funds – and only one fraudster went to prison because of it. [19] Our unemployment statistics are suspiciously low. New jobs – however many the media claim – pay less than ever before and provide few or no benefits. Meanwhile, the government safety net grows increasingly frayed. In North Carolina, the same conservatives who took power through illegal electoral gerrymandering in 2012 also have refused to cover the poorer half of the population with Medicaid coverage.


The economic situation of most North Carolina residents has been difficult for decades. Now, with the Covid-19 pandemic, for many more it has become desperate. If thousands of Tar Heels are out of work, are suffering from Covid-19, don’t know where their monthly rent or even next meal is coming from, are they or their college age youth in any position to deal with the UNC System’s business model, and its impetus to impoverish them? And as for the 47,000 of us working for UNC – why should we bear the costs of the disastrous last 4 decades of neoliberal austerity that the UNC BOG and UNC administrators seek to impose on us?

But the 1% of the population who are plutocrats and wealthy corporate owners can bear these costs. This is not a secret. “Trickle down” economics as an economic growth strategy has been successful only for those already making money; everyone else loses from this nonsense, and most of us know it. The real “takers” are not the 90% of the population that owns only a small percentage of the country’s wealth.