Wage Discrimination at App State

In the name of “diversity,” the UNC-System institution may have violated federal law.

Shortly after our February report on DEI activity at Appalachian State University, the Martin Center received a tip from a concerned App State employee. According to this faculty member (who has requested anonymity), App State has been paying many of its “diverse” graduate assistants a higher hourly wage than its “non-diverse” grad students receive. This pay disparity, our source maintained, was neither accidental nor informal but part of a longstanding, written policy in App State’s Cratis D. Williams School of Graduate Studies.

To support this claim, our source provided the following chart, which seems to indicate that rates of pay for “diverse” and “non-diverse” graduate assistants have indeed diverged since at least the 2016-17 academic year. (The red column borders are a Martin Center addition.)

As the reader will note, the standard hourly rate of pay for all traditional graduate assistants in 2011-12 was $13.33 or $15.00, depending on the size of one’s total stipend. For grad students in the special Graduate Research Assistant Mentoring (GRAM) program, the hourly rate of pay was $18.33, in keeping with the separate status and duties associated with that program.

So far, so good, as there is obviously nothing wrong with paying graduate assistants different hourly rates based on merit (in this case, competitive fellowships and programs). The problem begins, as previously stated, in 2016-17, with the introduction of a special “Diversity Rate of Pay Per Hour” column.

Perusing that column, one finds that at least some “diverse” graduate students received an hourly pay rate of $15.00, despite the fact that many of their “non-diverse” colleagues worked for $13.33 per hour. By the 2022-23 academic year, the “diversity” hourly rate had increased to $20.00, outpacing both of the standard pay rates awarded to “non-diverse” graduate students. (The GRAM program, to which grad students of all races and genders may apply, pays slightly more.)

Was App State violating the spirit (and possibly the letter) of UNC policy and federal law? It certainly appeared so.Was the App State graduate school, in contravention of the spirit (and possibly the letter) of UNC policy and federal law, practicing compensation discrimination? It certainly appeared so.

Like all UNC-System institutions, Appalachian State University is bound by the UNC Policy Manual, which states, “It is the policy and intention of the University of North Carolina that there be equal employment opportunity and freedom from unlawful discrimination in all employment within the University, as set out in Section 103 of The Code.”

Turning to The Code itself (a rulebook that “incorporates the requirements of the North Carolina constitution and General Statutes, as well as Board of Governors bylaws and other high-level policies”), one finds the following:

Admission to, employment by, and promotion in the University of North Carolina and all of its constituent institutions shall be on the basis of merit, and there shall be no unlawful discrimination against any person on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, or veteran status.

Undergirding both of these stances is language provided by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which makes clear that “Title VII, the [Age Discrimination in Employment Act], and the [Americans with Disabilities Act] prohibit compensation discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability” [emphasis added]. As an American employer, a public institution of higher learning, and the recipient of federally-guaranteed student-loan dollars, App State is bound by all three of the statutes mentioned by the EEOC.

Upon receiving our source’s information, the Martin Center immediately reached out to the Appalachian State University communications office for comment. The reply was unequivocal: “There is no structure to pay ‘diverse’ graduate assistants more than ‘non-diverse’ graduate assistants at App State.”

Straight, white, American men and women who fail to practice a “diverse” religion have been denied equal opportunity.Presented with the above chart, however, the institution acknowledged in a follow-up email that its original answer had been mistaken. App State does indeed award as many as 20 “diversity fellowships” each year. These awards, as the university’s website made clear until recently, are available on a competitive basis to incoming graduate students who compose a 600-word “self-nomination” essay “describing how they believe they will contribute to the diversity of campus and of their programs.”

Asked by the Martin Center to name the characteristics that allow one to identify as “diverse,” App State conceded that “the review of applications [has been] faculty-led, with no rubric [we] have been able to locate.” Our source, however, described a de facto standard that is rather more specific:

I was told that race, ethnicity, gender expression, religious affiliation, and status as an international student counted as “diversity.” I asked if first-generation grad students could self-identify as “diverse” [and] was told they could not—that that status is not one that counts.

Assuming our source is correct, it is difficult to avoid a series of damning conclusions. First, App State has been paying up to 20 graduate students a year a separate wage on the basis of their immutable characteristics. Second, the characteristics in question are practically a who’s-who of attributes listed in the EEOC’s anti-compensation-discrimination language. Third, straight, white, American men and women who fail to practice a “diverse” religion have been denied equal opportunity on a public campus.

There’s a familiar name for this sort of practice: systemic discrimination.

Curiously, since the Martin Center began asking questions about App State’s “diversity fellowship,” information about the opportunity has vanished from the graduate school’s “Scholarships and Fellowships” page. Until at least mid-February, the fellowship had its own anchor link. (Note the URL.) However, that link, followed now, fails to turn up the promised material. While the now-missing information remains viewable thanks to the Wayback Machine (i.e., the Internet Archive), a search of App State’s website produces, as of this writing, only glancing reference to “diversity fellows.”

In an email to the Martin Center this past Friday, the App State communications office asserted that the university will no longer offer the fellowship in question after this academic year. If true, such a move is little short of an admission of guilt. The public would be remiss not to ask whether other discriminatory practices remain.

Whether App State has been breaking the law is a question for regulators and courts. Whether its practice has been shameful, unethical, and unjustifiable is a question for all North Carolinians. The answer could hardly be more obvious.

Graham Hillard is the managing editor of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.