The Tennessee Pledge Scholarship awards full-ride scholarships to help students with a family income of $40,000 or less attend the University of Tennessee. On the scholarship’s uplifting website, one recipient notes that his grandfathers were both coal miners.
But while university leaders like Interim President Randy Boyd and Provost David Manderscheid are quick to tout the program, the truth is that their institution pays its own lecturers — most of whom carry PhDs — so little that their own children could qualify to receive a full-ride, need-based scholarship to UT.
In an effort to combat the underpayment of lecturers and the perceived devaluing of education at UT, a crowd of protestors marched through bitter wind and rain Thursday afternoon from McClung Plaza to Andy Holt Tower to bring a petition before Manderscheid with over 1,400 signatures.
Several lecturers and tenured professors were in the crowd, as well as staff and students, many of whom were holding signs and chanting “Fair pay now!” One man’s sign read, “UTK: Underpaying workers since 1794.”
The petition was written and presented by a caucus of lecturers within the United Campus Workers, the union that represents workers on public campuses in the state.
It asks for a guaranteed minimum salary of $50,000 for full-time faculty at UT and highlights the discrepancy in pay for full-time lecturers at UT compared with that of lecturers at peer institutions.
Lecturers at the University of Kentucky make 12% more than UT lecturers, while lecturers at the University of Georgia make 26% more. And when the scope is broadened to include top institutions outside of the south, the disparity is even greater.
As several of the lecturers who wrote the petition, including math lecturer Dr. John Griffis, are quick to point out, the low pay cannot be explained simply by a relatively small budget. In an academic environment where the Chancellor and Provost make upwards of ten times what lecturers are paid, underpayment is a symptom of a system where costs are minimized but salaries for administrators remain high, Griffis explained.
“When you are only thinking about the business, the profit of the thing, you are not thinking about the human impact of what’s happening,” Griffis said.
The human impact, it turns out, can be quite harrowing, especially for lecturers who must pay off educational debt. For Griffis and his colleagues, many of whom hold more degrees than the administrators they are petitioning, paying bills can be difficult and saving for the future can be rendered impossible.
“Thinking about retiring is a joke,” Griffis said. “I have student loans that will never go away because I can’t touch the principle.”
The job of a lecturer is no walk in the park either. Though they do not share the research requirement that comes along with being a professor, they often teach twice as many classes and make half as much as tenure-track professors.
According to English lecturer Dr. Anne Langendorfer, the job of lecturers is just as vital to the university as that of tenured faculty, seeing as they primarily teach first and second year students and are thus responsible for retaining students who might otherwise drop out.
“One of the great things about teaching so much is we get really skilled at being able to intervene with a variety of problems,” Langendorfer said. “We need to be compensated for that, because that’s difficult work.”
The equation for the petitioners is fairly simple. Guaranteeing a minimum salary to lecturers that reflects national standards will in turn raise the standard for teaching quality, which will then improve academics at UT and help the university increase its retention rates.
In the long-run, Langendorfer predicts the change would translate to more donations from alumni, higher rankings for UT and a better reputation for the institution on the national stage.
“The universities that pay their people well are highly-ranked and highly-esteemed, because they’re leaders. We don’t want to be the university that exploits its people the most,” Langendorfer said. “It’s really about the dignity of our labor.”
But outside of rankings and long-term profits, the argument for raising salaries for lecturers returns time and again to the question of values. To the faculty who wrote the petition, it is not a question of whether or not the university can afford to provide its lecturers with a fair and livable wage but rather a question of what the university values.
“We don’t want to think that we’re perpetuating a system that doesn’t value knowledge,” Langendorfer said. “You can’t be in the education business and devalue education. It’s just a fundamental hypocrisy that you cannot allow to happen.”