On UNC campuses, fair economic treatment must start with staff

The recent decision of the UNC Board of Governors to award generous raises to 12 university chancellors – already among the system’s highest-paid employees – has proven controversial even with Republican state legislators, who demanded records from the closed session in which the details of these raises were determined.

The raises have also brought protest on university campuses such as Appalachian State, where Chancellor Sheri Everts’ salary rose from $285,000 to $335,000, thanks to the BOG’s action. Student activists and faculty of all ranks signed a petition asking Everts to renounce the raise and staged an on-campus protest. To date, Everts has not responded to the petition and in a recent forum claimed to be unaware of controversies over her pay raise.

Meanwhile, ASU Director of Human Resources Mark Bachmeier distributed an email to Appalachian State staff on Nov. 5 promising a one-time $750 bonus from “campus-based resources,” to be added to a separate one-time $750 bonus already granted to full-time public employees by the state. After subsequently learning that the university has no legal authority to grant such bonuses, Bachmeier wrote to the staff retracting the promised $750 and suggesting emergency loans as an alternative for those in financial distress.

Although the staff will still receive $750 from the state, Bachmeier’s blunder slashes their bonus in half. This group includes some of ASU’s lowest-paid and hardest-working employees, many of whom struggle to make ends meet – those for whom the difference between $750 and $1,500 significantly affects their quality of life. It is unconscionable for the university to hold out the hope of a high bonus and then take it away. Bachmeier’s own salary, according to public records, is $130,000. Taxpayers supporting such a highly paid administrator deserve a better performance than this.

As an ASU graduate student, I benefit every day from the support offered by staff: guards who watch over buildings as we perform lab work late into the night, food service workers who prepare our meals on campus, clerical staff who process our travel permits and grant applications, janitors who arrive late in the evening to scrub and wax the floors, landscapers who create a beautiful outdoor environment for our campus and many more whose work I may not even know. We could not function without them, and they merit the best treatment possible.

In a recent public forum, Everts claimed the university is “working to identify funds to bring staff salaries to market rates.” At the same time, Bachmeier’s gaffe evokes the gulf between a promise made and a promise kept. Everts’ intention to raise staff pay is admirable – but those who break promises to vulnerable members of the university community should be held accountable.

As Everts accepts a large pay raise explicitly intended to bring her own compensation up to market value and as ASU’s director of human resources continues to earn a six-figure salary, voters and parents in North Carolina need to ask whether their tuition and tax dollars are truly serving the best interests of students and of the staff that faithfully supports their education.

The drive to bring subpar UNC salaries and wages to market value must start at the bottom – not at the top.

Catherine J. Cole of Boone has a Ph.D. in music and is working on a master’s in biology, with an emphasis in plant ecophysiology, at Appalachian State.