Experts debate affirmative action in admissions at UNC as Supreme Court weighs the issue

Last week, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Program for Public Discourse began its 2023 series of public discussions with a panel on affirmative action in university admissions.

This week, that discussion is available in its entirety on the program’s YouTube channel.


In late October the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in cases over affirmative action in admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill and Harvard University, the nation’s first publicly funded university and its oldest private university respectively. In arguments lasting nearly six hours the court’s new conservative majority gave the impression they are leaning toward plaintiffs fighting to end the practice, with potential broad consequences for university diversity programs of all kinds. A ruling is still pending.

UNC Law Professor Ted Shaw, director of the Center for Civil Rights, moderated the panel and weighed in throughout the discussion himself. He was joined by panelists Glenn Loury, professor of Economics at Brown University; John McWhorter, contributing writer at The New York Times and associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University and Rachel F. Moran, Law Professor at the University of California at Irvine.

“You couldn’t have a more important question,” Loury said of what hangs in the balance in the current Supreme Court case. “I’ve been studying these questions since I was in graduate school. That was a half century ago. The country’s gone through many changes and evolutions and so on. It was Sandra Day O’Connor in [2003] who said ‘I hope we won’t be in this business 25 years from now.’ We’re pretty close to 25 years now. We’re still in this business.”

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Duke University graduate student workers push for recognition of union

Graduate student workers at Duke University in Durham are joining a wave of students at other prominent private universities in unionizing. After a rally late last week, they are waiting for the university administration to formally recognize the union and begin negotiations on a first contract.

Duke University graduate student workers rally for union recognition.

“When we gain recognition, [Duke Graduate Students Union] will be one of the largest union workforces in North Carolina, in one of the least unionized states in the country” said union co-chairs Anita Simha and Matt Thomas in a statement Tuesday. “What’s more, we’ll be one of the first graduate worker unions in the South. This is a historic moment for our state, our community, and the rights of the workers who live here. We hope Duke recognizes that and does the right thing.”

A majority of the university’s approximately 2,500 PhD student workers have signed union authorization cards, declaring their desire to join Service Employees International Union Southern Region Local 27. If Duke’s administration recognizes the union, a third party will verify majority support. If the university refuses, graduate workers can file for a National Labor Relations Board election. The students have asked for a reply from the university by Friday, March 3.

Student workers say the union is necessary to begin addressing long-standing issues of workplace harassment, pay, transportation, international student protections, and healthcare access.

“Everyone here is fighting for something, and we are all fighting for everyone,” said Kristina Mensik, a first year graduate student in the Political Science department. “A living wage, comprehensive healthcare, and workplace equity: we all know our platform is common sense, and Duke knows it too. Gaining a seat at the table is the way to make it a reality.”

“For the 2022-2023 school year,
40.1% of Duke’s PhD population is formed of international grad workers,” said Duke graduate worker Jaeyeon Yoo, a second year Literature student, in a statement. “Even though we are dependent on the university for the right to live and work in this country, we are often the least-protected demographic.”

“Unlike U.S. citizens, we’re not allowed to earn additional income to supplement our stipends, and are often living in a state of legal precarity,” she said. “It’s crucial that international grad workers have a union to protect our rights – we’re an indispensable part of the Duke community.”

Last year, Policy Watch reported on the problem of graduate students – especially International students – trying and failing to live on the stipends provided by their universities. Many reported relying on food banks to eat and struggling to pay for housing, transportation and basic medical expenses.

At last week’s rally the Rev. William Barber, former head of the N.C. NAACP and new leader of Yale University’s Center for Public Theology & Public Policy, encouraged Duke to recognize and begin bargaining with the union.

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

“It’s time to allow this labor union vote to go through without any tricks,” said Barber, who earned his Master of Divinity degree at Duke. “You ought to be ashamed that schools in the north are ahead of you in the South. You ought to be leading the South. You ought to be leading the nation. You ought to be leading the way.”

Universities not just in the northeast but midwest and western states are well ahead of Duke on this issue. Graduate student worker unions have seen recent election victories at Yale, Boston University, Northwestern University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Southern California.

These students are not going anywhere,” Barber said. “They are going to win. In fact, Duke, you ought to be encouraging it.”

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Campus workers union to rally, deliver demands to UNC Board of Governors

The UNC Board of Governors will hold a full day of committee meetings Wednesday – and they’ll have a few guests.

UNC System workers of UE Local 150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, will hold rallies both at the UNC-Chapel Hill campus and at the UNC System office in downtown Raleigh. Among their demands : a $20 an hour wage for campus workers, an end to the policy of making campus workers pay to park on campus and the repeal laws preventing collective bargaining for public sector workers.

“The cost of gas, food, rent and everything is going up,” said Saw Moo, housekeeper at UNC-Chapel Hill and UE150 member, in a statement Wednesday.  “Housekeepers deserve $20 per hour. We clean restrooms, offices, classrooms and everything. We are very good workers and work hard for the university. We are asking that they help us provide for our families. This is why we are here for the rally.”

The work of on-campus workers is just getting harder, said Robin Lee, also a housekeeper at UNC-Chapel Hill and UE150 member.

“We are rallying for higher pay because UNC has increased our workload due to understaffing,” Lee said.  “We should get paid for the hard work we do, often above our job descriptions, to keep the university clean.”

The union will rally at the South Building on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus at 12 p.m. Wednesday, according to a press statement. They will deliver their demands to the UNC Board of Governors at the UNC System Office, 223 S West St, Raleigh, at 4 p.m., just as the board’s day of committee meetings ends.

Rallies and protests by workers, students, faculty and staff have happened for years at and surrounding meetings of the system’s governing board. That was easier when the system met in public buildings in Chapel Hill. This will be the first such demonstration since the North Carolina Legislature mandated that the system office move to downtown Raleigh, where it now operates and holds board meetings on the 17th and 18th floor of a large office building. Those wishing to attend meetings must now drive to downtown Raleigh, pay for parking and navigate two different elevators. Meeting rooms are also smaller, with even some members of the board who attended last month’s committee meetings needing to stand or sit on desks to observe.

“The state of North Carolina underpays and overworks those of us who uphold our system of public higher education, especially the campus workers who maintain universities’ appearance,” the union said in a statement this week. “We are forced to do more and more work without increases in pay commensurate to the rising cost of living across the state. The UNC System’s reputation of providing a world-class education and cutting-edge research would not be possible without the work that we do. Over the last 3 years, we have seen how vital our work is to the UNC System, and despite a rainy day fund totaling $5 billion and a surplus in state revenue last year of $6 billion, our work is still not valued enough to pay us a living wage.”

The UNC System issued its own statement addressing the issues raised by the union.

“The University of North Carolina System relies on the talent and hard work of more than 48,000 faculty and staff to meet our mission every day,” the statement read. “The System has advocated strongly for faculty and staff raises, resulting in legislative increases during the last two years. Compensation for SHRA employees, including housekeeping staff, will remain a key priority for the University in the coming legislative session.”

“Last year, about 400 employees in this occupational grouping at UNC-Chapel Hill received salary increases totaling $1.5 million,” the statement read. “We’ve worked with the legislature and the Office of State Human Resources to make it easier for campuses to recruit and retain staff.”

Some of the items at issue aren’t the province of the system, the system office said in its statement.

“Graduate student stipends and parking regulations are responsibilities delegated to individual campuses,” the statement read. “Chancellors work diligently to balance many competing demands on their resources, and we’re grateful for the care that goes into those deliberations. Graduate students’ contributions are an essential part of the University’s teaching and research enterprise, and the recent minimum stipend increases at UNC-CH were well deserved.”

A look at the members of the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities

Former UNC System Presidents Margaret Spellings and Tom Ross co-chair the new commission.


Today in Wilmington the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina will hold the first of six public forums. The stated mission of the listening sessions: “to seek ideas and suggestions on how to enhance and refresh the governance structure of our public universities.”

The commission’s overall mission is to examine the current appointment system for members of the UNC System Board of Governors and boards of trustees at the 16 constituent campuses and make recommendations to the Governor on how it may be reformed. An executive order Cooper signed in November requires a report from the commission no later than June of this year.

Top Republican leaders have already dismissed the need for any changes to the appointment process, which the GOP now tightly controls, and denounced the commission itself as partisan. Since any changes recommended by the governor would need to be enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly and its Republican majority, the commission and its recommendations need to be seen as genuinely bi-partisan. Cooper ‘s tapping of two prominent former presidents of the UNC System – Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings, Democrat and Republican respectively – to lead the effort didn’t prevent GOP criticism. But the full commission includes current and former state lawmakers from both parties as well as current and former members of the UNC Board of Governors and various trustee boards from both sides of the aisle.

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