Who knew that a former executive at General Electric, a company widely-known for its tax dodging and outrageous lobbying expenses, would take a bold, selfless stand against income inequality as president of a public university?
Raymond M. Burse, interim president of Kentucky State University in Frankfort, was re-hired at his old job (he previously served as president from 1982 to 1989) at a generous salary of $350,000. He decided to give himself a pay cut of almost 25 percent to raise the wages for 24 KSU employees, effective immediately. As a result of Burse's sacrifice, those workers will now receive $10.25 an hour instead of $7.25. Burse has said he will take additional pay cuts if any other minimum wage workers are hired at KSU under his watch.
"In this situation, the people making the least are doing the greatest amount of work, and I wanted to acknowledge that," Burse told me in a phone interview.
Burse worked at GE for 17 years, eventually moving up to becoming a vice president and senior counsel of the company. He retired in 2012, and became KSU's interim president just over a month ago. He was previously a partner at the Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs law firm in Louisville, Kentucky. To his credit, Burse acknowledges that rather than taking a radical position or trying to inspire a trend, he was simply in a unique position to give up some of his wealth.
"I did something I could afford to do, and I chose that. Other people may not be similarly situated," Burse said.
Even still, the former top-level executive at one of the world's richest corporations acknowledges that income inequality is a growing problem. Bloomberg recently reported that America's richest 1 percent may be even richer than previously thought. Additional research from Gabriel Zucman of the London School of Economics and Philip Vermeulen of the European Central Bank shows that those with $20 million or more in net worth, or the richest 0.1 percent, actually control closer to 23.5 percent of all wealth.
The previous estimate of the 1 percent controlling 21.5 percent of all wealth didn't account for the wealth hidden in overseas tax havens, according to Zucman. Vermeulen discovered that the world's richest 1 percent control closer to 37 percent of the world's wealth, rather than the previous estimate of 34 percent. Nobel Economics Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz blames the greater concentration of wealth on the drop in consumer spending since the recession officially ended in 2009.
"It's pretty clear that there is a growing gap between the richest people in this country and everyone else," Burse said of his fellow 1 percenters. "I think the data speaks for itself."
While Burse repeatedly acknowledged that his decision to volunteer for a 25 percent pay cut was chiefly his own, borne out of his own values of dedication to his community, it is reflective of a nationwide trend to increase the minimum wage. In 2014, 10 states from Hawaii to Maryland have raised their minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, as suggested in President Obama's State of the Union address. The city of Seattle recently raised their minimum wage to $15 an hour, the chief demand of the fast wood and retail workers' movement. Burse's decision to take it upon himself to give minimum wage workers a pay raise aligns him with that movement.
"I think something should be done, and done soon," Burse said in a response to a question from MSNBC's Ed Schultz about raising the minimum wage.
When Burse's proposed pay cut was accepted at a university board of regents meeting, the room erupted into a standing ovation. According to Burse, one of the regents approached him afterward and said there had never once been a standing ovation in the board room. On The Ed Show, Burse recounted a story of one minimum wage worker who approached him after the fact with tears in her eyes, thanking him for taking action that would raise her standard of living. Burse said the university is reaping lasting benefits as a result of the viral news surrounding his voluntary pay cut.
"What I'm hearing from our people is that people are making contributions to the KSU alumni fund, and more parents want to send their daughters and sons to KSU," Burse told Ed Schultz. "We've been getting calls, emails, and texts from people all over the world."
(This post originally appeared on Reader Supported News.)