What Could $500K Do for UNC? The Waste of HB2

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B.A. Coussens

As I pointed out in my last post about HB2, the summer desertion of college campuses often coincides with a decline in advocacy efforts. I proposed that we prevent our campaign against HB2 from languishing amidst midsummer’s heat by spending the remaining weeks before fall convocation speaking out against the law.

In this post, I continue breaking the silence of summer by picking up a question posed by a friend at the North Carolina Faculty Forward Network. She asked, “What could we do for the university system with $500,000?” Since I am a graduate student, I approach the question from a slightly different angle, exploring what could $500,000 do for the graduate and professional students of North Carolina.

This question is, of course, purely suppositional. The funds discussed here would never have been available to the UNC system. However, it addresses one of the cognate issues of HB2: the mismanagement of state’s funds to establish a law which denies basic rights to citizens.

This financial misfeasance began with the calling of a special session of the General Assembly in March to pass the law, an act which cost $42,000. It continued as the Republican members of the General Assembly sat idly in session in April through July, ignoring the plight of their citizens. And, it culminated on June 30 when they set aside half a million dollars of the state’s emergency fund to defend HB2, legislation Gov. McCrory let become law on Monday without his signature.

Thus, this question, though theoretical, probes a significant issue with the law by inquiring of our elected officials what sort of fiscally more responsible things could they have done with these funds.

For graduate and professional students, the query of what this money could do is easily answered. The potential applications for the funds are as diverse as the research in which we are engaged. However, for us, government waste and yet another raise of the North Carolina system’s chancellors’ six-figure salaries cannot help but conjure up the continuing inadequacies of graduate service stipends.

If you are unacquainted with the graduate school pay structure, service stipends are the contracted wages paid to graduate and professional students in exchange for their labor as teachers or researchers. Some stipends may also be accompanied by tuition remission and health insurance. This pay structure, including its classification as a stipend, embodies the liminality of the graduate student: we are researchers, employees, teachers, and students. It also promulgates a particular perspective on how graduate students should use their time and obscures certain realities, like the fact that graduate students are increasingly performing the duties of fixed-term and adjunct faculty.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, the base yearly stipend for doctoral students (the number used by many departments) is $15,700. At face value, this does not look like a bad deal. However, in my field, we have a saying: context is everything.

So, let’s examine a few points for context.

A few years ago, graduate students presented an argument for a raise in stipends. One point they made was that stipends were not keeping pace with the inflation rate. Despite a $500 raise, this assertion remains a legitimate critique. When compared with the stipends of 2010–11, according to the Inflation Calculator of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, graduate students would have to receive another $520 raise to maintain their buying power of seven years ago. With the continued inaction of the North Carolina system in this regard, the value of grad stipends declines on a yearly basis.

On top of our diminishing buying power, students do not actually take home $15,700. Remember the liminality of graduate students? It also has a real effect on stipends. Graduate students immediately pay back to their employers $1960 to cover student fees. Thus, in reality, graduate and professional students only take home $13,740.

The real problem, though, is cost of living in our area. The estimated living wage for our area dwarves this $13,740, and the large discrepancy between these figures does not account for the fact that many graduate students have spouses and children.

Before any of you protest that the purpose of the stipend is not to replace a living wage, recall what I stated above. The stipend pay structure promotes a certain perspective of what graduate students should be doing with their time. This concept that graduate students should be able to live on their stipends alone, working only for their departments and progressing towards their degrees, is the very idea inherent in this system. In fact, in the past year, I have had colleagues tell me that their programs admonished them for having additional jobs outside their departments and not abiding by this fantastical ideal. With the current levels of stipends across North Carolina, though, any such expectation is purely quixotic. Many graduate students have to work multiple jobs to feed and house themselves and their families, and their progress in their programs suffers accordingly.

Given this context, the current pay structure is untenable and needs to change both to support current graduate and professional students and to attract new ones.

Now, I realize that the $500,000 currently being wasted on the defense of HB2 would not have fixed this problem. That sum, when divided among all the teaching and research assistants and teaching fellows at just UNC-Chapel Hill, would not go far. However, it would serve as a promise by the state and the University system to do better for their graduate and professional students. And, instead of investing North Carolina’s money in the defense of the state’s perceived right to discriminate against its own citizens, such a reallocation of funds would be used to improve the lives of thousands of North Carolinians, whatever their age, color, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, gender expression, genetic information, veteran status, and national origin—the guarantee of our institution’s non-discrimination policy.

And that point—improving the lives of North Carolinians—hits at the heart of the issue of the General Assembly’s misappropriation of state funds. Beyond the human rights side of things, one of the greatest continuing travesties of HB2 is that the expenditures on this shameful legislation prevent the state from addressing its actual problems or investing in new opportunities.

Do you have ideas on how the state could have used the $500,000 to improve UNC system schools and/or the lives of our graduate and professional students? Discuss it on Twitter with the hashtag #500kHB2. Tweet the author at @Man_and_Trowel.