Michael Behrent

Faculty Senate Chair Michael Behrent speaks during a virtual meeting of the group on March 23.

BOONE — Pay raises of any kind for Appalachian State University faculty and staff might be unlikely for the 2019-20 school year as university officials respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At this time we cannot commit to (a raise) because our circumstances are much different than when that commitment was made at the beginning of the academic year, when we had every expectation that the state would provide appropriations and we would not be facing a pandemic that is a crisis to the health and the wellbeing of the institution,” said Intern Provost Heather Norris.

During a March 23 Faculty Senate meeting via video chat, members of the group asked Norris about the status of a pay raise for faculty. The original pay raise commitment was made in September by Chancellor Sheri Everts to award merit-based raises for faculty ranging up to 4.99 percent after asking administrators to adjust the university’s budget to identify funds. At that time, Everts stated that App State would move forward with faculty merit increases as allowed once the state’s budget process was complete.

This plan was modified when the N.C. legislature could not override the governor’s veto of the state budget bill. Norris approached faculty with a different plan in February, which at that time was to award salary adjustments also known as market-based raises. Market-based raises were limited to promotions, job reclassification to a higher level, labor market considerations, internal salary inequities or when additional duties are assigned to an employee.

During her address in February, Norris said that the pay raises for faculty and staff would come through in 2020 as administrators had identified a pool of funds shared by the ASU Student Affairs, Business Affairs and Academic Affairs divisions. Deans and department chairs were planning for either type of raise, Norris said.

This second plan possibly has changed again, as the university prepares for financial impacts brought on by COVID-19. Because of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, Norris said the university is not able to think about releasing the aforementioned funds for a market-based raise.

“A lot of that focus now is on advocating for national and state relief funds to support our emergency work,” Norris said. “Unfortunately at present, there’s too much uncertainty to know what our financial situation might be. We just don’t know at this point.”

Interim UNC President Bill Roper announced on March 24 that system universities will temporarily suspend salary adjustments, position actions (including creating new positions or modifications to existing positions) and new hires to “permit maximum focus on the university’s COVID-19 response.”

Exceptions may be granted by a university’s chancellor or their designee only under circumstances such as when it is necessary to support COVID-19 response (including any health care or clinical operations); to support or augment other clearly essential university operations at the discretion of the chancellor without ability to delay; when mandated by law or policy (including critical compliance obligations); when required by employment contract; and as otherwise directed by Roper or his designee.

“Any human resources actions that are already in progress but not yet completed or implemented shall be canceled unless they meet the above noted criteria,” Roper stated. “Any such actions in process with the system office will be returned.”

Employment offers that have already been formally communicated may be honored with the caveat that a start date may be subject to modification based on COVID-19 and related public health restrictions, according to Roper. This does not include situations where an offer has been discussed but not formally completed.

Faculty Senator Brian Burke — an assistant professor in the Sustainable Development Department — said he understood that the university is amid an unpredictable situation. However, he questioned why faculty should take seriously any commitments made by the university going forward since it was uncertain if faculty would receive raises. Other faculty members raised concerns about the shared governance the group is supposed to have with the university’s administration.

“I don’t think we can look for salary raises this year,” said Faculty Senator Barbara Howard — an associate professor of school administration in the Department of Leadership and Educational Studies. “I wish we could just get a straight answer instead of all of the back and forth.”

Faculty Senator Martha McCaughey, a professor in the Department of Sociology, mentioned the “spending freezes” handed down to academic departments with instructions to not spend any more money unless it relates to the COVID-19 emergency. She asked if other parts of the university — such as athletics — had been instructed to do so as well. Norris said athletics is under the same spending freeze, and that other divisions were asked to curtail unnecessary, non-essential spending.

Faculty Senate Chair Michael Behrent stated that he thinks the group — particularly the senate’s budget committee — needed regular and transparent communication with the university about the university’s finances.

“There are all kinds of extremely significant impacts that this crisis could have on our wellbeing, our future and our employment,” Behrent said.

Behrent asked Norris if a member of the administration would be willing to meet regularly with the committee to discuss the university’s financial status, to which Norris said she would pass the request to those in Business Affairs. She added that she was willing to meet with the budget committee relative to her role as well.

Additionally, she said administrators will have a budget presentation on April 24. Norris said that at that point the university should have more answers as to what guidance App State will have from the University of North Carolina system and any kind of relief funds that may be forthcoming.

Behrent ended the conversation by stating he wanted to create an ad hoc COVID-19 committee within Faculty Senate to monitor activity and as it related to the university and informally discuss the matter. He proposed that the group meet virtually at 3:15 p.m. on March 30.

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