CHAPEL HILL- Local officials say a push from state leaders to reform higher education amounts to an attack on Orange County’s values.

According to Chancellor Holden Thorp, the greatest threat facing UNC these days isn’t just budget cuts.

“We started off with a financial crisis, and now we have a philosophical crisis about the role of government and the role of public universities as part of it,” says Thorp.

Thorp made his comments during the Town and Gown discussion at WCHL’s 2013 Community Forum. You can listen to the full Forum here.

Despite a projected state surplus, Thorp says he’s expecting cuts that will negatively impact research funding and financial aid. He says the pressures from the Republican-controlled state legislature to reform higher education amount to an attack on the liberal arts.

Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton agrees: “They are opposed to critical thinking, because critical thinking is what a liberal arts education is really all about.”

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt characterizes the latest crop of proposed legislation as “adolescent,” as newly-seated lawmakers rush to push through an agenda that’s been ignored by Democrats for decades.

“Like so many adolescents they’re just running headstrong out in to the wild without considering the challenge or obstacles they might face, or what dangers they might put us in,” says Kleinschmidt.

Governor Pat McCrory’s plan to focus on job training and new technology is shortsighted, says Thorp, and overlooks the importance of educating students for lifelong learning.

“It’s not possible for us to train students for the jobs that are there four years from when they enter, because we’re not able to predict the technological changes that we’re seeing in the world,” says Thorp. “Trying to guess what that will be four years from now for the class that’s coming here this summer- it wouldn’t work.”

Hillsborough Mayor Pro Tem Eric Hallman points to the liberal arts as an important job creator for the town of Hillsborough.

“You can’t throw a book without hitting a writer,” says Hallman. “With the interest in arts and culture and how that drives the economy, if you’re looking at job creators, that’s a job creator. Hillsborough is a specific example of that.”

Because UNC and UNC Health Care are the largest employers in Orange County, Board of Commissioners Chair Barry Jacobs says the university sets the tone for public discourse in our communities.

“Intellectually, I think that the university contributes to an atmosphere of thought and discussion,” says Jacobs. “People criticize Orange County and Orange County government a lot of times because we talk so much before we make decisions, but we have an educated and informed electorate.”

Kleinschmidt says its time to call upon that engaged electorate to lobby for change at the state level, in order to protect the values of Orange County.

“We have to start somewhere, and it has to be college towns. It has to be communities that have that direct appreciation for what a university offers it and how it defines it, to stand up and educate those who are new to the policy making arena,” says Kleinschmidt.

Despite the challenges local leaders say they face from lawmakers in Raleigh, Thorp says his successor, incoming Chancellor Carol Folt, is poised and ready to defend the value of a liberal arts education.

“There are a lot of people around that are willing to fight for it. I think that Chancellor Folt will be the same way. It is something we’ve fought for in Chapel Hill a long time, and we’ll keep fighting.”