Politics & Government

Board approves Mary Easley's raise

First Lady Mary Easley will retain the $170,000 salary N.C. State proposed for her earlier this summer, but she must raise one-third of it herself.

That means taxpayers will pay $114,750 and Easley will have to raise the remaining $55,250 through grants and other private fundraising.

The total salary still represents an 88 percent raise from her previous salary of $90,300 for working as a senior lecturer and executive in residence within N.C. State's provost's office.

But in lowering the amount of Easley's salary paid through public funds, and in releasing background documents describing the duties of the job, UNC system leaders hope to quell a furor that erupted earlier this year when the terms of Easley's initial deal with N.C. State were made public. Previously on a nine-month term, Easley will now be a 12-month employee.

“I am convinced the proposed salary fits the job and is totally justified,” UNC system President Erskine Bowles said prior to the unanimous vote on the matter by the UNC system Board of Governors. “This is a big, complex job.”

It is unusual for Bowles to discuss and defend a personnel decision to the extent that he did Friday. But Easley's salary and the manner by which N.C. State put together her job responsibilities have been hotly debated for months now.

Hired initially in 2005 as a three-year contract employee primarily responsible for the Millennium Seminars speaker series, Easley received a big raise and some new responsibilities earlier this year.

The salary change was not submitted to the university system for approval, a violation of UNC system policy requiring that all raises of more than 15 percent or $10,000 be reviewed by the university system. Bowles was out of the country in July when news of the salary change surfaced. On Friday, he recalled that he phoned his office to find out “who in the world had authorized this contract.”

But after scouring the paperwork and working with N.C. State officials, Bowles said, he emerged convinced that the salary was proper and Easley was qualified for the job. He said he accepts N.C. State's contention that Provost Larry Nielsen simply misinterpreted the six-year-old policy on approval of pay raises. “There is not a shred of evidence to suggest N.C. State tried to circumvent board policy,” Bowles said. “There is not a shred of evidence to suggest N.C. State was under any political pressure to give Easley the job.”

Easley will continue directing a speaker series. In addition, she'll teach, coordinate some pre-law programs and create a new public safety center. James Oblinger, N.C. State's chancellor, said Friday that Easley's new roles are in areas of the humanities where the university wants to place greater emphasis.

“Other universities trying to do this would have to hire three people,” he said.

With the new salary, Easley, who is not on the tenure track, earns more than all but 94 of 3,455 faculty and professional staffers at N.C. State, according to a News & Observer analysis. Reducing the taxpayer-funded portion of the salary “just made good, common sense,” Bowles said, given that part of Easley's job will be to raise money for a new public safety center.

Easley could not be reached for comment Friday, but issued a short statement thanking university officials for their support.