A high school teacher in the Knox County school district, one of the most underfunded school districts in the state, who is hired straight out of their undergraduate education makes a starting salary of around $37,000 a year. A high school teacher in Knox County schools with a PhD makes $49,000 a year.
One would expect that collegiate-level instructors at the University of Tennessee would be making significantly more than high school teachers. However, many non-tenure track lecturers at UT with PhDs, especially those in the humanities department, do not currently earn even $40,000 a year for their full-time work.
Knox County high school teachers with less education experience are making about the same wages as these lecturers, and Knox County high school teachers with the same amount of education experience are often making higher wages than UT lecturers.
UT lecturers differ from professors whose primarily focus is research; lecturers teach more and usually have larger classes, and they are not on a tenure track as many of their research-based colleagues are. This means that the university is not required to renew their teaching contracts at the end of each year.
The wage disparity of lecturers has recently sparked a discussion on campus regarding the possibility of raising these salaries. Dr. Ann Langendorfer, a lecturer in UT’s English department, is one of several non-tenure track faculty members who, in recent months, have presented the issues regarding the working conditions of lecturers to UT administration. Dr. Langendorfer also arranged a petition calling for higher wages for full-time lecturers at UT.
The petition explains that the Modern Language Association, a professional association, believes that university lecturers in the language and literature fields should receive $10,000 for each class that they teach. Although Dr. Langendorfer believes that this is a little ambitious, she also thinks that it is not at all a ridiculous number for a professional salary.
However, Dr. Langendorfer is not requesting that lecturers make $10,000 per class. Instead, she is asking that no full-time non-tenure track lecturer at UT make less than $50,000 per year.
“There is an unbelievably low bar being set for teaching, especially in arts and sciences, and we want to put value in our work and remind people the value of learning about, say, foreign languages, math, reading and writing,” Langendorfer said. “These are fundamental to the kind of student work, the kind of learning that we think is crucial to the University of Tennessee, so we don’t want any [full-time] lecturers making less than $50,000 at UT. We don’t think that’s an acceptable wage for teachers at the collegiate level.”
Dr. Langendorfer is also requesting that the guidelines outlined in the faculty handbook, which was updated in the summer of 2019, be upheld. These guidelines create rules regarding the evaluation of non-tenure track faculty. Evaluating non-tenure track faculty can be difficult, Dr. Langendorfer explained, because there are more elements to consider than just the students’ evaluations of the professor, yet there is not research to evaluate as there would be with tenure track professors. Fair evaluations are essential for lecturers to be able to maintain their positions and receive promotions, especially because they are not guaranteed their positions with a tenure track.
Overall, Dr. Langendorfer believes that the petition on fair wages prioritizes quality learning and speaks to the very core of UT’s fundamental values.
“We want to present this petition to the university in hopes that they will see our call as a reminder of the mission of the University of Tennessee, which is not only to create knowledge but also to disseminate that knowledge to not only our students, but the entire Tennessee community,” Langendorfer said.
Dr. Langendorfer explained that she is optimistic in the outcome that the petition will have and that she has lots of faith in administration. In fact, it was announced recently that several non-tenure track lecturers would have their wages raised to $40,000 a year.
In no way does Dr. Langendorfer feel discouraged by the actions of administration on this topic; her sentiments are quite the opposite, and she believes that administration will be responsive to the concerns of its faculty.
“I believe in my colleagues, and I believe in the provost that he wants to live up to the values that he espouses when he talks to parents and students and colleagues, when he says the teaching at UT matters, when he promotes the University of Tennessee as a good place to learn. If it’s good place to learn, then it’s gotta be a good place for its employees,” Langendorfer said.
Dr. Langendorfer explained that ultimately, she believes that she and the administration have shared values.
“I think that our institution really does believe that our teaching is worth something, and I think they think it’s worth more than they’re giving us, and they want us to advocate for what matters, and they know that the value’s there,” Langendorfer said.
Dr. Laurie Knox, a lecturer also in the English department at UT, is member of the Faculty Senate Committee on Non-Tenure Track Issues (NTTI). The committee has worked to address a variety of issues regarding non-tenure track faculty, including teaching loads, advising concerns, fair wages and more.
Dr. Knox explained the impact the lecturers’ low wages have on the teachers affected and the greater UT community.
“If we devalue the work of one segment of our faculty, it hurts all the faculty — and the students,” Knox said. “It's just terrible for the university as a whole when some of our faculty are earning so little that they have to teach extra courses at other colleges just to make ends meet.”
Knox explained that in the english department, the lowest-paid and newly hired tenure-track professor earns more than the highest paid lecturer, who is a Distinguished Lecturer with over 20 years experience and a repertoire of awards.
Although she believes that the current working conditions for non-tenure track professors are less than satisfactory, Knox is very hopeful that the university will work alongside Faculty Senate to take actions to raise lecturers’ wages
“I'm an activist, and activists are by definition hopeful. I think we can do better,” Knox said.
“The conversation about fair wages for lecturers is part of a larger conversation about wages at UT”, Dr. Langendorfer explained. Currently, there are UT employees, such as some of those on the janitorial staff, who make $9 an hour. At the same time, UT is spending exorbitant amounts of money to create new buildings on campus and has also continuously raised students’ tuition.
The discussion about wages begs the question, how can UT pay certain university staff members $9 an hour while paying other faculty members hundreds of thousands of dollars a year? The University of Memphis has already raised their on-campus minimum wage to $15 an hour for all faculty and staff, demonstrating that the shift to higher wages is a possibility at a large, public university.
Dr. Langendorfer explained that she hopes that addressing lecturers’ low wages will inspire a discussion about all wages on campus.
“We’re in a bigger conversation about wages around who deserves to make a living wage, which we think is everybody, and we know that in some ways, we’re advocating from a very privileged position in that we make enough to pay bills — maybe not enough to live the kind of life that we think professionals should make with PhDs,” Langendorfer said.
The petition currently has 453 signatures.