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Protesters marched to Folt’s office to oppose privatization of UNC Student Stores

Students and staff protest the possible privatization of the UNC Student Stores: Freshman Tristan Bavol (linguistics major) (right) helps lead demonstrators in front of the South Building
Students and staff protest the possible privatization of the UNC Student Stores: Freshman Tristan Bavol (linguistics major) (right) helps lead demonstrators in front of the South Building

At noon on Wednesday, about 200 students gathered in the Pit as organizers of the “Save UNC Student Stores” protest read testimonials from Student Stores employees. These employees, who say their jobs could be in peril if the stores are outsourced, wrote about their disappointment in the University and their concerns about Follett.

Soon after, the protest group marched toward Chancellor Carol Folt’s office in South Building to drop off a signed statement denouncing the privatization of Student Stores, all while chanting “Student Stores” and “save our store.”

Organizer Shannon Brien, a member of Student Action with Workers, said sometimes people forget the University doesn’t just comprise students and professors — there are many people, such as Student Stores workers, who keep the University running smoothly every day.

“It’s really a service that directly connects students to the larger University infrastructure. As students in this situation, it’s really important for us to get involved as primary advocates for Student Stores because they really do serve us in a clear and tangible way,” Brien said.

Organizer Grace Ware, whose aunt and father are longtime Student Stores employees, remembers visiting the stores as a child. She said the employees watched her grow up.

“I’ve known them all a long time and they’re all good people and they deserve to have their jobs,” she said.

Ware spent Tuesday afternoon hanging up posters advertising the protest and summarizing why she felt Student Stores should stay University-owned. She said she hopes administrators will take students’ worries into consideration.

“They should see that students care, and if they care about the students, they should take that into consideration. And they should realize the students are not just going to fall back and let this happen,” Ware said.

“Maybe the employees can only do so much because they’re employees of the store, but the students can help fight for the employees and fight for the good things the store does for students.”

Haleigh Morgan, Follett’s senior external communications specialist, said the company was unable to comment on whether student pressure would affect Follett’s proposal.

Follett’s proposal was not solicited by the University, and no decision has been made about whether to accept it. Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Matt Fajack said whatever decision is made about Student Stores, scholarship funding, the welfare of employees and the quality of service available for the community will be considered.

“We do not take the question of privatizing UNC Student Stores lightly, and if a decision is made to outsource operations, it will be done after a thoughtful and deliberate process that includes input from key campus representatives, including those from the student government, the Employee Forum and the Faculty Council,” Fajack said in a statement.

“We will also require any proposal to include retention plans for the people who work there, including student employees.”

UNC Libraries donor communications and annual fund coordinator Rachel Canada said she was happy to see students rallying around state workers because she’s a state employee herself.

“Student Stores is central to campus. It’s vital, it’s important, it’s community based,” Canada said. “I believe that it’s very profitable, and I’m suspicious of their motives for why they want to privatize.”

Senior Jocelyn Le, who works at Student Stores, said she doubted a private corporation would have the community’s best interests at heart.

“I wanted people to see that there are people who care, and I wanted to be one of those people who are in the Pit caring about this,” she said.

A petition on the website asks Folt and UNC administrators to avoid privatizing Student Stores. It had received 3,039 signatures at press time.

“We ... request that UNC Student Stores remain a University-operated campus store, accountable directly and only to the University, and managed and staffed by University state employees,” the petition states.

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Student Body President Houston Summers said right now he is not in favor of privatizing Student Stores. Summers, Chief of Staff Harry Edwards, and Senior Adviser Andrew Brennen will be serving on a committee with administrators to create a Request For Proposal, or RFP. This document will advertise to outside companies what terms the University is willing to accept if a company was to apply to lease the stores.

“We as students and as a University are in control of this situation. We have a committee that is going to put together an RFP. The RFP is our ability to make whatever requests or demands we want. Period,” Summers said. “We do have the power.”

Summers said the process doesn’t aim to take anything from the stores.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for us to take a deep dive into Student Stores to see if there are ways to maximize the amount of funds that are going to back to student scholarships and financial aid,” Summers said.

“The things that we do well at Student Stores, we are going to demand that these things will be part of Student Stores in the future.”

He said he and the other committee members will need to look at the full scale of Student Stores to come to a decision.

“This is so early in the process. I think there are really interesting ways that we can raise awareness for this issue and make certain demands without thinking it’s the worst thing that’s going to happen,” he said.

Edwards and Brennen are Summers’ two appointments to the request for the proposal committee. Faculty members, administrators and Employee Forum members will also serve.

Residence Hall Association President Taylor Bates said he is worried about the community and the livelihoods of the Student Stores workers whom he considers part of the UNC family. Bates said RHA is working on informing its residents about the possibility of privatization.

“Advocacy is a pillar of the RHA. There are 8,700 people who live on campus. And I think the people who do live on campus — more so than off — are really affected by Student Stores,” Bates said.

“We definitely don’t want to see the service for the students decrease or have a negative impact on this institution that’s been around for 100 years this year.”

Ware said UNC students need to hear information about how Student Stores benefits them — and take action.

“People care. Students care. Faculty care. It’s not going to go quietly. I think the administration needs to realize that this isn’t going to happen without a fight.”