Dr. Steve Patch is not ready to call it quits on the Environmental Quality Institute. The director of the water-testing center, which was recently cut from UNC-Asheville, says he is working with other universities to try to get one of them to pick up the EQI.
Meanwhile, UNCA Provost Jane Fernandes says the controversial decision to boot the EQI and the Mossbauer Effect Data Center was made by her. Early in the spring semester, after the UNC General Administration issued a directive to review centers and institutions to determine their contribution to undergraduate studies, she asked each director to write a report explaining, she says, "why the university could not function without them."
"As a result of that process," Fernandes continues, "I decided that [the EQI] and the Mossbaur Effect Data Center were not integral to the education of undergraduate students."
Patch disagrees: In pursuing the mission of providing low-cost lead and copper testing, he argues, the centers conducted important research and provided a venue for student research and material for his class curriculum. The EQI has, he says, also used thousands in grant funding for scholarships and student salaries. "I believe that EQI's record of contributing to UNCA's mission compares quite favorably to the centers that have not been cut," Patch says.
The EQI sustains itself on grant funding, and Patch thinks the impetus of the decision was the $280,000 the university would save by not renovating the lab space. Rhodes Hall, which houses the lab, is scheduled for a $9 million refurbishment, and UNCA officials are planning to convert the lab into classroom space.
Passed by the General Assembly and approved on Aug. 15 by the UNC Board of Governors, the university-system budget lists cuts for several centers within the UNC system, but there is no such mandate for UNC-Asheville. But UNCA is required to make $1.28 million in cuts, to be determined at the discretion of the administration. There is also a $237,214 reduction in state funding for the Rhodes Hall renovation.
"The only way I can rationalize it was that they didn't want to pay the remodeling cost," Patch says, adding that the current lab was working fine for the EQI, having been remodeled 10 years earlier.
Some EQI grant funds also go to UNCA — $44,000 last year — for facilities and administrative costs. But, according to UNCA Vice Chancellor of Finance and Campus Operations John Pierce, that sum, as determined by EQI's budget, should be more like $119,000. That means cutting the center amounts to administrative savings, he says.
Meanwhile, Patch has been discussing a new future for the EQI and approaching other area campuses, which at this point he won't name. He is hoping for an affirmative by the end of August. "We have to move fairly quickly because our grantors are saying, 'You have to let us know if we need to renew our grants or not,'" he says.
Fernandes says she hopes EQI finds a new home. "We would be happy to work with any site in every way possible to make a smooth transition so that the work of EQI can continue," she says. That includes holding recent meetings to determine how to free up the thousands of dollars of EQI equipment that was paid for by grants but is now property of the UNC system.
"There are some technicalities that we have to work out," she says.