After getting help from South Building, UNC-CH grad-student group hopes for bigger say

The Old Well on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.
The Old Well on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

While grad students at Duke University were turning down a unionization drive this spring, their counterparts at UNC-Chapel Hill were securing a split of student government they hope will give them more say in campus affairs.

Completing it, however, took a rather forceful intervention from Chancellor Carol Folt’s administration, with Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp running point. After telling student leaders that existing arrangements were “marginalizing the wants and needs our of graduate and professional students,” he stepped in at the start of the spring semester to order the creation of separate student governments for undergraduates and graduates.

The move drew criticism from undergraduate leaders, not least because Crisp said the Folt administration would invoke the chancellor’s legal authority to take “unilateral action” to impose the split if he saw any footdragging. In the event, students ratified the change via a referendum this spring, their third on the issue in about a year.

But as far as graduate-student leaders were concerned, the intervention was overdue.

“Our colleagues at Duke have the right to unionize now,” said Dylan Russell, who was president of the Graduate and Professional Student Federation at UNC in 2016 and for this year’s spring semester. “As public university students, we can’t unionize. We need some way to make sure we have greater access to the Board of Trustees, and a fairer allocation of student fees.”

Russell’s comment about Duke alluded to a National Labor Relations Board decision last August that said “student assistants” at private universities with teaching or research duties are employees with collective bargaining rights under federal law.

The NLRB decision sparked an immediate unionization drive at Duke by the Service Employees International Union. Though a subsequent vote by Ph.D. students there went heavily against joining the SEIU, the broader regulatory ruling on the existence of basic bargaining rights stands.

Nominally, it didn’t affect public university students at all, and in North Carolina, state law would forbid UNC leaders from entering contract talks with a union even if their grad students could join one.

Still, UNC grad students, many of them people who’ve returned to school after starting careers and families, are seeking channels to have their interests heard. And they wound up training their fire on a student-government structure that by its nature awarded the lion’s share of the say to undergraduates.

For devotees of the one-person, one-vote principle, that follows naturally from the fact that undergraduates make up not quite two-thirds of the student body. But it also meant the undergraduate student congress had more influence over allotments of fee revenue, and that Russell and his predecessors had to take a seat in the audience while the undergraduate student-government president took at seat at the table in trustee meetings.

The two-thirds/one-third split of the electorate also meant it was difficult to push through a change via a student referendum, though the last attempt before Crisp’s separate-or-else order fell just 41 votes of short of winning the necessary supermajority.

The administration’s motives for having sided with Russell’s organization on the issue are just as obvious, given how heavily faculty depend on graduates assistants to do grunt work in their classrooms and labs. Access to a steady flow of new and talented assistants is selling point for departments and schools in faculty-hiring battles, one UNC has an interest in protecting given that on average it doesn’t pay professors as much as competitors like Duke.

But because state law says only one student at at time can serve on the Board of Trustees, campus leaders wound up needing a somewhat convoluted solution to put the split of student government into effect. It allows for the possibility of students’ electing up to three presidents in a given year, one each for the undergradate and graduate governments and perhaps a third to serve as the trustee if neither of the other two can win a separate election for that post.

Either government can trigger impeachment proceedings against the student trustee, and through a joint panel they have approval rights over his or her reports to the full board.

The other trustees, who owe their appointments to state legislators or, before the start of this year, North Carolina’s governor, had been following the dispute. Russell faced questions about the new arrangement during their March meeting, and answered that there’s precedent for it at other universities.

Though it would ideally be best to “have two students sitting at this table,” the Crisp-ordered split is “getting graduate and professional students one step closer to access to this board,” he told the trustees’ University Affairs Committee.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg