UNC-Chapel Hill’s move to privatize its 100-year-old campus bookstore drew students, professors, retirees, state workers and one lawmaker to protest in a cold drizzle Monday.
Inside, the store bustled on “Mammoth Monday,” the biggest sale of the year. Outside, protesters held red signs that said, “Save Student Stores” and “Protect UNC Jobs.” The rally, organized by the State Employees Association of North Carolina, was attended by nearly 100 people.
Protesters said UNC’s move to seek bids from large bookstore chains is a solution in search of a problem. The UNC Student Stores is a self-sustaining operation that employs 200 students and last year generated $400,000 in scholarship funds for the university. The store has 49 permanent employees, including some with decades of experience whose state benefits could disappear.
Ardis Watkins, legislative affairs director for SEANC and a UNC alumna, called the store a valuable institution. “It puts money back into scholarships. It gives money back to the university,” she said. “It is a winner.”
Then she added: “What’s next? Are we going to build a Starbucks around the Old Well? Where does it end?”
UNC officials say they want to listen to what private companies can offer. The university is putting out a request for proposals, and expects bids from Follett and Barnes & Noble. Follett, which owns several college bookstores at North Carolina campuses, sent UNC a letter last summer suggesting it could generate an annual commission of at least $3 million for the university annually.
No bids have been received yet, said Matt Fajack, vice chancellor for finance and administration, who stood in the crowd at the rally.
I appreciated what they had to say and I understand it. I have a lot of concerns for the employees, too, and we’ll take that into consideration when we look at the bids.
Matt Fajack, UNC-Chapel Hill vice chancellor for finance and administration
“They don’t have all the facts,” he said of the protesters. “They misrepresent a few things. But overall, I appreciated what they had to say and I understand it. I have a lot of concerns for the employees, too, and we’ll take that into consideration when we look at the bids.”
McKay Coble, a professor of dramatic art, said her husband, Frank, had worked as the store’s buyer for textbooks for years and now could lose his job. The couple will be OK financially, she said, but said others won’t.
The only way for the private company to generate more funds for the university is to lay off staff or pay them much less, Coble said. She predicted long lines, less stock and fewer services for students.
“The overarching question is to UNC: Why do this?” Coble sasked. “Where’s the evidence of a better store if you privatize it? How much trouble is an already self-contained, money-making, service-providing entity to you?”
Opponents of privatization handed out spreadsheets comparing prices of 100 new and used textbooks at UNC to the same titles in corporate bookstores at other UNC system campuses. The cost was roughly $1,000 more for the 100 books at the privatized stores.
House Rep. Verla Insko, a Chapel Hill Democrat, said there’s evidence of higher costs at private stores, especially at historically black universities where many students receive federal grants.
“They come in here to make a bid because they know that they can make money,” she said of the private companies.
Efforts to reach a Follett spokesman were unsuccessful Monday. In its letter to UNC earlier this year, the company estimated that “we could save your students several million dollars a year on course material.”
Don Nonini, professor of anthropology, said the bookstore staff had nurtured relationships with students and faculty for many years.
“These professionals deserve our gratitude,” he said, “not a pink slip.”