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Erskine Bowles: a Democrat willing to swing the budget ax

Erskine Bowles is co-chairman of the presidential deficit commission, which votes Friday on US fiscal plan. As president of the University of North Carolina system, he's no stranger to budget-cutting. He's had to trim more than $550 million and 1,000 jobs.

By Contributor / December 3, 2010

President Obama's Debt Commission co-chairmen, Erskine Bowles takes part in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 30.

Alex Brandon/AP

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Erskine Bowles, co-chairman of President Obama’s deficit commission, is often referred to as a former White House chief of staff. That’s true, but he has a more current title that may be more pertinent to his commission role – president of the University of North Carolina system.

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Mr. Bowles has led the sprawling institution, which has 17 schools and enrolls more than 200,000 students, since 2006. The past three years have been especially challenging for the system, which receives a significant amount of funding from the state, because North Carolina has struggled with one of the greatest financial crises in its history.

Bowles has had to figure out how to cut more than $550 million from the system budget while adhering to his own tuition guidelines, which are meant to prevent too much of the growing cost burden from being put on the backs of students. It’s not unlike figuring out how to bring the federal deficit under control without cutting too much or hiking taxes too high.

The budget cuts that Bowles presided over in the UNC system led to the elimination of more than 1,000 jobs, halts on many system projects, and cuts to many centers and institutes considered unessential in a time of lean finances.

Such cuts aren’t easy, but they’ve gone over reasonably well: Ask state legislators on both sides of the aisle, his board, the campus chancellors, and even the state’s leading conservative education organization, and his efforts to reshape the UNC system’s budget earn almost unequivocal praise.

“One of the strengths of Erskine Bowles is that he looks very carefully at the facts and the numbers and acts accordingly,” says Jane Shaw, president of the conservative John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, N.C. “I think it's a better run, more efficient, probably more open system than it was four and a half years ago.”

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