Without Pay Raise in Twenty Years, UH Grad Students Take Petition to Masses

Categories: Education

Nickel_and_Dimed_cover.jpg
Something UH grad students know well
One month before your friends began painting their Facebook profile pictures red in support of gay rights, a group of University of Houston English Teaching Fellows swapped their main photos to something of the same color: a shot of the Cougars' mascot, blazing red, with a bit of text underneath it:

University of Houston: Where grad students have not received a raise in 20 years.
While this online move was ignored by the administration and the larger student body alike, prospective students took note. Potential students looking to UH's MFA and Ph.D. programs, considered some of the finest in the nation, suddenly started asking questions within the interview stage of their application processes.

"When we're doing admissions and interviewing Ph.D. candidates, they've started asking about it," Tony Hoagland, an associate professor of English, told Hair Balls. "This is already a problem. I guarantee that this has lost us a lot of grad students."

And they're right to ask about it. Because, as shared by the same group of English TFs who've swapped their Facebook profiles, those participating in the programs are approaching penury. Their program, despite its prestige -- the university has landed top-five rankings every year within recent memory -- has begun dropping prospective candidates because it offers a stipend that forces current TFs' energies from teaching and research onto mere survival.

As the group of TFs, who are expected to both research their studies and lead two composition courses, shared on their Facebook page, their annual stipends have remained stagnant "since at least 1993." MFA students see a stipend of approximately $9,600, while Ph.D. students receive some $11,200 per annum. According to Beth Lyons, one of the Ph.D. TFs, such annual rates are significantly below peer programs.

"You look at Cornell, for instance, and that annual stipend is $26,000 per year -- and that's in Ithaca!" Lyons told Hair Balls. "Denver's at $18,000, Athens is $15,000, USC and UCLA are $20,000. And most of these places also have a lower cost of living, too."

However, following fees incurred -- 16 percent for Ph.D. students, and nearly 20 percent for those pursuing MFAs -- the stipends at UH drop to $9,400 for Ph.D.'s and $7,800 for MFA's. Moreover, while tuition hikes are waived for these TFs, they can't forgo jumps in student fees. Whenever a new fee is levied -- say, for a new football stadium -- these MFA and Ph.D. students see another chunk of their salaries swiped.

Students who want to supplement their university income with another job are out of luck. According to Lyons, any jobs beyond their current position are expressly prohibited by the students' initial contracts. "Any other work is in violation of the contract we signed," Lyons told Hair Balls.

Via an internal survey of 49 respondents, Lyons noted that they discovered TFs required an average of 1.9 outside jobs simply to subsist. "71 percent of English TFs who responded work outside jobs to cover living expenses, because we feel we can't adequately live," she said. " What we're asking for is a living wage. It's nothing impossible."


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17 comments
LucyNgo
LucyNgo

What a bunch of pansies. Don't they know that this is Texas, and 25,000 public educators have lost their jobs in this state in the past two years? Cry a river, girls. It's not like any of you have actually been working at UH for twenty years. You're here, you knew what you signed up for, you leave for your little white office jobs. Learn what it's really like to live and work as an educator in Texas.

josette.arvizu
josette.arvizu

Appearing today in the Houston Press is an article about University of Houston English Department teaching fellows. These graduate student instructors have not received a raise in twenty years and have petitioned the University of Houston administration for a living wage. One UH representative is reported to have said the following: “These stipends are modest and not intended to serve as a living-wage salary--students are here to study, learn and work with their graduate advisers to help them prepare for their careers." --UH Media Relations.

Translation: Your teaching, though integral to nearly every UH undergraduate experience, is low cost to us and we'd like to keep it that way. Yes, we bar students from outside work [UH TFs are forbidden by contract to seek additional employment]. No, the "stipends" (we don't like the term salary as we don't consider you real professionals though you do the work of professionals) are not a living wage, but feel contented that they were never INTENDED to be. After all, your key role is student, and your teaching is a privilege.

The unspoken implications of this are grave. Potential UH graduate students in English should 1. be independently wealthy; 2. take out loans and mortgage future earnings; 3. take much better financial offers from other less prestigious programs (perhaps hurting future chances in the competitive academic market); or 4. not attend graduate school at all.

According to the UH website, "The mission of the University of Houston is to offer nationally competitive and internationally recognized opportunities for learning, discovery and engagement to a diverse population of students in a real-world setting."  UH administration has been unwilling to provide cost of living increases to the salary or "stipend" for UH English Graduate Teaching fellows for 20 years.  This unwillingness limits the educational opportunities of talented writers and scholars of diverse economic backgrounds.  The unwillingness to even recognize the funding as a salary but rather as a "stipend" does not fulfill UH's promise of a "real-world setting."  UH needs to either fulfill its mission or acknowledge its failure and change the mission to more accurately reflect the policies it enforces. 

The UH administration position seems to be to attempt to build up its football program with an expensive Hail Mary pass--build a huge stadium and hope that a competitive team and fans actually follow--rather than fairly fund and support academic programs that already bring the University its best students, faculty, and national attention.

I would love to know what the salaries were for administrators in 1993. Perhaps a return to those salaries would be best to alleviate what UH Media Relations calls "financial and budget constraints."

justine.post
justine.post

Also, the UH administrator is leaving something out. It is only UH Teaching Fellows in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and the College of Social Sciences who are expected to live on a stipend. Teaching Assistants, Teaching Fellows, and Graduate Assistants in the UH Colleges of Business, Education, Natural Sciences, Math, and Optometry actually make salaries between $20,000 and $33,000. I guess those students who choose to earn Masters and PhDs in the humanities shouldn't expect a living wage, but those in other departments should?

nansei
nansei

Fantastic article!


watchingpredator
watchingpredator

Due to this my loved one and I will not be living in Houston any longer : (

bbb123
bbb123

@LucyNgo

“You knew what you signed up for”: Sure, to an extent. But not completely. We knew what our salaries would be, but we didn’t realize how much we’d be paying in fees ($842 a semester—an amount no one in their right mind would anticipate), or that that amount would increase year to year to cover things like football stadiums. More importantly, your comment that we “knew what [we] signed up for” so should just shut up and accept the fact that this university essentially requires us to break our contracts in order to survive, suggests that we all should have just accepted that graduate study would be off limits to us if we wanted to be able to feed ourselves while pursuing it. It suggests that we should have given up the opportunity to pursue graduate degrees because we weren’t independently wealthy. Yes, I knew I wasn’t going to be rolling in the dough as a graduate student in the humanities, and I accepted that. I still do: I’m asking for a living wage, not a pot of gold. To turn down my program’s offer of funding, meager as it was, would have meant conceding that graduate study is only for the rich and off limits to me due to my class status—that I must be independently wealthy, able to live off the income of a spouse or partner, or willing to take out an exorbitant amount of loans in order to be able to pursue a humanities PhD and do what I love. And I refuse to accept that.

It’s not radical to want to be able to eat. It’s not unreasonable to ask to be paid a living wage above the poverty line for educating 54 college students per semester, for teaching courses that the university supposedly considers important enough to require every single one of its students to take. And last I checked, people who stand up for themselves against those who exploit them are hardly “pansies.” They’re strong people willing to take risks, willing to field ignorant, hurtful, and uninformed comments like those you’ve posted, because they believe in the value of what they do. Yes, “this is Texas,” but so what? You’re right that this state can be hostile to educators and that the problems we’re facing aren’t particular to us. These issues are faced by educators all over the nation, especially part-time faculty, who have become the cheap labor of the public university machine all over the country. But to me the fact that these problems are common to others only makes them all the more worth fighting for. Many of us were teachers in public high schools or instructors—both full-time and part-time—at other universities all over the country before we came here, so to suggest that we’re ignorant greenhorns who aren’t aware of “what it’s really like to live and work as an educator”—in Texas or elsewhere—is erroneous. As far as I'm concerned, everyone should want everyone else to earn a living wage and be able to feed themselves through the work they do! I genuinely hope you earn enough to live comfortably doing whatever it is you do, Lucy, and that you don’t have to struggle to get by. I’m not sure why you don’t think that I—or my colleagues—should be able to do the same.

jameelahlang
jameelahlang

@LucyNgo Lucy, to my mind, this is exactly the kind of rhetoric that gets all of us educators in trouble.  The race to the bottom--the contest to claim the spot of "worst off."  Certainly, all of us teachers at UH feel incredibly sympathetic toward Texas educators who have lost their jobs.  Many of our TFs at UH also work in HISD public schools during their tenure as graduate students, and many of our TFs go on to take jobs in HISD public schools once their tenure is over.  TEACHING is an undervalued practice--at UH, in Texas, in America.  I think we all hope that teachers will begin to receive recognition and fair wages for the work they are doing everywhere, not just at UH.  And frankly, I think asking any teacher to "cry a river" or deal with working conditions that place him or her securely below a national poverty line is only reiterating a harmful social stance in which all teachers are undervalued, mistreated, and asked to suck it up. Lucy, I hope you receive fair, livable wages for the work that you do; it is something that everyone deserves, (and that we all should hope for one another), regardless of the circumstances of their employment. 

JPKTGFW
JPKTGFW

@justine.post Not correct. We all earn sub-20k and are not allowed to have any jobs besides studying/teaching at UH.

MarRamsey
MarRamsey

@bbb123 I agree with all you say, but you make it sound like UH is the only place in the world to get an MFA. Go down to UT Austin where they pay their Michener fellows $33K/year WITHOUT teaching. Or go to any other program with respectable funding. I think there are 200+ MFA programs out there that give funding better than UH. Let them lose you, let the quality of their program fall. Don't buy into the BS.

UHEnglishTFs
UHEnglishTFs

@JPKTGFW @justine.post  Which part of the above statement is incorrect JPKTGFW?  According to some recently collected data from the UH website, yearly salaries for UH TFs in other departments outside of liberal and social sciences come in as follows: Accounting PhD 25,800 ; Finance PhD 25,800 ; Management PhD 33,000 ; Marketing GA/TA 31,870-35,710 ; Supply Chain Management GA 25,800 ; Educational Psychology PhD 30,000 ; Biochemistry & Biology PhD and MA 21,000 ; Chemistry PhD 23,400 ; Mathematics MA and PHD 11,200 ; Optometry PhD/MS 20,772.

zzzz1983
zzzz1983

@MarRamsey @bbb123 Right. This is like someone who takes a minimum wage job complaining that they make minimum wage. Why not apply for better-paying jobs/programs if your aim for graduate school is not to have to take out loans? Plenty of graduate students (like teachers getting their credentials, for example) have to pay out of pocket, get NO stipend, and have to teach in addition to going to school. 

UHgradstudent
UHgradstudent

@UHEnglishTFs  Why are you not getting other departments on board within the college of liberal arts and social sciences if they are making the same wages and have the same fees?  Don't you feel that their teaching load is just as important as your own and they would be equally interested in participating in this movement?  

UHEnglishTFs
UHEnglishTFs

@JPKTGFW @UHEnglishTFs Yes, UH English TFs are slapping fees, tuition, and health-care insurance onto a yearly salary of 11,200 (PhDs) and 9,600 (MFAs).  Also, regarding salaries in the Mathematics department, updated information has just been found on their website, and is higher than initially estimated: "The starting salary for new teaching fellows [in Mathematics], during 2003-2004, is $12,000-12,240 at the Masters level and $12,375-12,623 at the PhD level for 9 months, plus benefits."

justine.post
justine.post

@UHEnglishTFs @JPKTGFW I was going by the TA/TF salary information provided by each college on the UH website.  The information is not available for every major, however.  If you have more information about your particular major, I would love to add it to our data.

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