A financial literacy tool offered earlier this year by the University of North Texas is drawing criticism from some employees who question the university’s motives.
SmartDollar, a workplace financial wellness program, has drawn some criticism, but most of the concerns of faculty members have instead been directed to the company that produces the tool – Ramsey Solutions.
“The goal was to try to improve the overall financial well-being of our employees,” UNT President Neal Smatresk said earlier this month.
SmartDollar is a program designed for companies to offer their employees to save them money – the implication being, according to some critics, that it’s a cheaper way to give workers a pseudo-pay raise.
A summary package for the tool asks employers to “stop employee financial stress that’s hurting your bottom line.”
“The reality is Americans struggle with their money, and these problems follow your employees to work,” he continued. “It’s killing your business! “
The program is based on financial advice from founder Dave Ramsey.
In addition to his business, Ramsey is an author and hosts a popular radio show where he discusses finance and Christianity.
Ramsey and his company have acquired a degree of infamy over the past year as at least two former employees sued his company.
The first centered on a woman who claimed to have been fired for getting pregnant when she was unmarried, which the employer said violated the company’s “just life” policy.
The latter was filed by an employee who claimed to have been dismissed for having denounced the suspected lack of pandemic safety protocols who despised employees who wore masks instead of believing in God.
Smatresk said the university was only aware of these controversies after signing a contract with SmartDollar.
He had expressed interest in bringing SmartDollar to the Denton campus as early as December 1, 2020, according to emails from the Denton Record-Chronicle obtained through a Texas Public Information Act request. the Record-Chronicle analyzed 369 pages of emails related to conversations of UNT administrators on SmartDollar and Ramsey.
The records were redacted for various reasons under the law, but it was not clear to what extent because UNT performs all redactions using white boxes instead of black boxes.
The emails showed that internally, UNT superiors were pitching the SmartDollar program at least in part on the back of Ramsey’s reputation, and at least once acknowledged that there was disagreement over it. usefulness of his advice to many people.
Records also showed Debbie Rohwer, chief of staff and vice president of planning at UNT, emailed a representative from SmartDollar in early April asking for advice.
She said she had just come from a UNT Faculty Senate meeting “where they lambasted the company Dave Ramsey for the bad press around the dismissal …” would hurt participation in the program.
The program had been fairly well received at the UNT Health Sciences Center in Fort Worth, and it fitted well into Smatresk’s existing affordability initiative.
He told those attending UNT Session of the Faculty Senate on April 14 that approximately 15% of eligible employees have signed up for SmartDollar so far. Five percent of them signed up within the first hours of the program launch, according to internal emails.
Typical sign-up for all customers approached 30-35% on average, according to email records obtained by the Record-Chronicle.
That number hadn’t changed much when Smatresk was interviewed in early June, but it was clear the program was still in its pilot launch.
He said those who signed up were largely happy with their experience so far.
Smatresk had enlightened internal employees to agree to a price of around $ 55,000 per year for SmartDollar by Jan. 7.
He acknowledged in a telephone interview in early June that there were speakers, instructors and faculty members still earning relatively modest salaries, but he saw SmartDollar as a relatively inexpensive way to help alleviate the burden. part of that burden.
“For less than a salary, in many cases, we can help many of our employees gain financial independence,” he said at the time.
Smatresk said he felt “a great responsibility to continually improve the quality of life, pay equity structures and the future financial security of all who work” for UNT because of its status as a major employer for the Denton area.
Deliberations between the university and the company were virtually complete by February 3, the documents were signed on February 25, and the first payment made the next day.
The final three-year contract, also obtained by the Record-Chronicle, showed that the first year would cost $ 60,500. This included a $ 15 fee for each of the 3,700 eligible employees and a one-time “eligibility fee” of $ 5,000.
On March 10, administrators were thinking more seriously about how to offer the SmartDollar program to employees of UNT Dallas and UNT System.
Between that date and the launch of the program on May 1 for eligible employees and graduate students, a series of nationwide articles from various news agencies reported more extensively on the two lawsuits facing Ramsey and his namesake company.
Caitlin O’Connor, the former employee turned litigant who was pregnant, filed her lawsuit on July 20, 2020 and Tennessee reports entirely on this file when it was seized the next day.
Despite this, it only found more extensive coverage a month or so after UNT signed on the dotted line with SmartDollar.
Smatresk has repeatedly claimed that he had no knowledge of the lawsuits or their content before signing the contract with SmartDollar.
In statements to the faculty’s Senate in April, Smatresk has repeatedly said that he is not trying to defend the company’s actions, but that it is not the university’s responsibility to verify the morals of the company. every company with which it contracts.
He compared SmartDollar to Chick-fil-A in this regard.
“At the time of our selection, there had been no controversy around [Ramsey Solutions] that we were aware of, ”he told those in attendance virtually.
Despite this, he seemed at least partially aware of what to expect before appearing on camera at the April Faculty Senate meeting.
A professor let Smatresk and Provost Jennifer Evans-Cowley know ahead of time that senators would like to know “more about the Smart Money program.” Like how it happened etc.
Smatresk’s email response, in full: “Thanks… I’m sure they want to talk about Dave Ramsey… sigh.” “
He didn’t quite swing out of the door during this meeting, but he had this to say before opening for questions: “About a month ago two different articles came out – that you can call articles, you can call clickbait or you can call attack articles or slam articles, whichever you want… ”
He said he was not entirely clear on the truth of the case, but the articles were based on legal documents and comments only from lawyers for the former employees.
Professor Tracy Everbach, when her time to speak a few minutes later, responded to Smatresk’s criticisms of various newspapers.
“As a journalist, I want to say that I have reviewed the same stories that you spoke about, and I did not consider them to be successful jobs,” she said. “I saw these stories as factual information reported on a trial.”
She and other senators made it clear that women on campus were uncomfortable being asked to provide various personal information to a financial tool operated by the same company that is supposed to negatively target female employees who have sex before marriage.
Smatresk has been clear, as has SmartDollar’s assurances via email, that all information provided to SmartDollar remains confidential.
Graduate student Tiffany Miller, discussing UNT’s plan to roll out SmartDollar to graduate students, was among many speakers who spoke out against the university’s force in promoting the program.
“It’s almost insulting to have a program pushed towards you to help you manage your money when the problem isn’t that you’re not managing your money well,” she said. “It’s because you don’t earn enough to cover your cost of living, so I want to let you know. “
She also suggested that the university put its money where it is if it truly wants to be an inclusive and diverse community that supports women and the LGBTQ community by not contracting with companies that make a point of not supporting. these same causes.
Earlier in the meeting, Smatresk made a suggestion about people who don’t support a company’s positions: no need to share the product.
MARSHALL REID can be reached at 940-566-6862 and via Twitter at @MarshallKReid.