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Graduate workers call for redistribution of chancellor's six-figure salary


Students and other UNC community members in masks listen to Jennifer Standish, a UNC graduate student in the Department of History, speak at the Die-In Protest organized by the Anti-Racist Graduate Worker Collective on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The protest called for UNC to transition to fully remote classes for the Fall 2020 semester after a letter of caution sent to Chancellor Guskiewicz by the Orange County Health Director Quintana Stewart.

The UNC System’s former interim President Bill Roper released a memo in July, updating the guidelines for short-term emergency furlough and salary reductions.

This decision allows chancellors within the UNC System to issue salary reductions for University employees who are exempt from the State Human Resources Act — which include faculty, research and instructional personnel and senior officers of the University. 

The Anti-Racist Graduate Worker Collective — a group campaigning for the financial equity of marginalized on-campus workers — is demanding Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz use this authority to redistribute financial support from high-paid employees to departments that need extra support due to the pandemic.

Becci Menghini, vice chancellor for human resources and equal opportunity & compliance, said in a statement via UNC Media Relations that the University is committed to managing budget losses in ways that "prioritize people, reduce operational expenses, and put focus on the teaching, research and service components of our mission.

"Should we determine that personnel actions are needed, we will most certainly work to distribute the effort such that those with higher earnings assume a larger share of the burden," Menghini said in the statement. 

For the 2019-2020 year, the minimum stipend was $7,850 per semester for doctoral programs and master's/doctoral programs, and $5,700 per semester for terminal master's programs, according to the Graduate School's website.  

These stipends amount to about $16,000 annually for graduate workers. A livable wage in Orange County for the 2019-2020 year is $33,789 annually.

“The current minimum graduate worker service stipend of $15,700 per academic year does not allow students to save cash reserves for emergencies, and many graduate workers have lost second and third jobs they rely on to make ends meet,” a petition sent by the Anti-Racist Graduate Workers Collective in April said.

Provost Bob Blouin makes $493,182 annually, and Guskiewicz makes $620,000, according to the UNC System salary information database. The collective is calling for the redistribution of Guskiewicz’s and Blouin’s annual salaries. 

Danielle Dulken, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of American Studies, said graduate workers remain out of the conversation of financial security. She said a temporary cut of these administrators’ salaries would be sufficient for graduate student workers. 

“What would it mean for Chancellor Guskiewicz to take a temporary pay cut to ensure that no workers, under any circumstance, be furloughed during a pandemic?” Dulken said. “Considering that he forces graduate workers to survive on $15,000, the demand is one that is really trying to make clear that there is absolutely no acceptable situation in which campus workers are furloughed when University administrators make as much as they do.”

Some graduate student workers rely on different forms of income to assist themselves during a semester. 

Joseph Richards, a Ph.D. student and graduate teaching fellow in the Department of Communication, said they fear that their current employment will soon become obsolete.

“The jobs outside the University are pretty scarce right now," Richards said. "We can’t go work at a coffee shop, we can’t go work in a restaurant or work in a bar. So, it means living in this heightened state of anxiety, in addition to the work that we actually have to do on campus.”

Richards said they have to rely on student loans to get through graduate school. 

“It’s a situation that sets up a system where unless you already have access to generational wealth, or some kind of family income or you're expected to have a partner who makes a lot more money and can support you, essentially, with non-living wages, it makes graduate school feel like something that’s just a hobby for rich people,” Richards said. 

For Richards, this pay disparity on campus is unacceptable. 

“We have people on this campus who make six-figure salaries, while graduate student workers who do a lot of the labor to keep campus going sometimes live with food insecurity — and that is unacceptable,” Richards said. 

Roper's memo from July also expanded chancellors' authority to issue furloughs to non-faculty employees. 

"Chancellors are now authorized to implement temporary furloughs up to 12 months in duration or of any lesser duration based on budget cuts or interruptions in revenue sources due to COVID-19," Roper said in the memo.

The collective is opposed to these measures, and in its press release said Guskiewicz "chose to furlough international graduate workers and not address the precarity of other workers when he could have done so a month ago.” 

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But UNC Media Relations said in an email that international graduate students at the University were not furloughed. 

“Those students who were able to obtain visas and join us on campus have been able to assume their graduate and teaching assistant roles,” Media Relations said. “Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, some international graduate students were unable to obtain a visa and travel to the United States this fall.” 

Suzanne Barbour, dean of the Graduate School, said in a statement via UNC Media Relations that the University is taking into account graduate students in regards to the pandemic. 

“The Graduate and Professional Student Federation has been a key partner in those discussions," she said in the statement. "We will continue listening and engaging with our graduate students as we move forward together.” 

For Richards, part of the solution is the acknowledgement of the issue from UNC administration. 

"We’re dealing with an immediate loss of income for some people and the potential loss of income for others — while also the present of lots of us living in financially precarious situations now," they said. "And he has yet to even address that issue. That’s the fight we’re fighting right now.”

Dulken likened the University's treatment of campus workers to its actions throughout reopening. 

“The same administration that chose to put us in a really dangerous situation that didn’t have to reopen and expose the entire community to a deadly virus is the same institution that chooses to pay its workers wages that cause us to suffer,” Dulken said. 

And the fight for accountability from the University isn't over, she said. 

“When we think about those experiences together, it motivates us to keep asking questions, to keep fighting, and to keep caring for each other and checking in on each other," Dulken said. "While we continue to hold a really unjust administration and a really unjust institution accountable for how it treats its workers.”