Opinion Graphic

NC State recently announced furloughs for frontline workers in auxiliary units, including housing, dining and transportation. According to the University, these cuts were necessary because of financial losses resulting from the campus shutdown this fall. We, the members of UE150 — the public service workers union at NCSU — reject the idea that furloughing essential workers is the only feasible response to the COVID-19 crisis. NC State must prioritize the well-being of the entire campus community, including its workers.

The administration has portrayed its decision to furlough essential workers, most of whom are working-class people of color, as an unfortunate but unavoidable response to the public health crisis. Auxiliary units alone lost $75.4 million in revenue after campus closed abruptly just weeks into the semester because of uncontrolled COVID-19 spread. However, the administration should not punish workers for its own failures. NC State can afford to continue paying essential workers.

Why is the budget crisis falling hardest on essential campus workers? In 2019, the salary and benefits of all workers in auxiliary units represented just 6% of total university expenditures. NCSU has a $1.4 billion endowment and $3.5 billion in assets. Part of the express purpose of the endowment is to “provide stability during periods of market volatility.” What does stability mean if not providing job and financial security for the people who make the university work? 

We also question the University's inability to find a way to continue paying workers given the exorbitant amount of money that goes to top administrative and athletic staff. Chancellor Randy Woodson earns upwards of $1 million annually. The salary of the top 20 highest paid employees averages to over half a million dollars and adds up to nearly $11 million annually. Yet these same high-paid administrators believe the responsibility for making up for budget shortfalls lies with frontline workers who make, on average, $31,000 a year. Salary reductions for NC State’s most economically secure employees could save dozens, if not hundreds, of jobs. 

The University could also flex its massive political capital to advocate for robust public funding of higher education — much of which has been stripped in recent years to finance tax cuts for the wealthy. It is a sad but revelatory irony that the most powerful university employees have benefited economically from the university’s loss of public funding. 

Apologists for the administration will object that the university’s billions of dollars in assets and endowment cannot simply be liquidated to plug the current budget holes. A whole array of legal and bureaucratic barriers prevents administrators from simply moving funds from one account to another. Yet this is only partially true, and other universities have already drawn from their endowments to cover budget deficits from COVID-19. 

We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the administration and other stakeholders to find solutions that prioritize the well-being of the entire campus community. Unfortunately, the administration has refused to meaningfully involve workers, students or faculty in making decisions. We had no voice in the decision to reopen campus this fall. We had no voice in determining the safety measures meant to “protect the pack.” And we’ve had no voice in the university’s response to the budget crisis. 

Recent events make it clear that the university cannot sustain its current business model. We urge the administration to recognize that the long-term viability of higher education depends on a more inclusive approach to university funding and management. Indeed, “protect the pack” means campus workers too. We demand a response to the pandemic that protects the most vulnerable and builds a sustainable and just university.