In the following guest post*, Ted Shear, lecturer in philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, suggests a way that those with secure positions in academia can help out their more vulnerable colleagues during this time of increased economic insecurity.
How Can Permanent Faculty Help Protect Grad Students and Non-Permanent Faculty from Impending Budget Cuts? Take the Summer off from Teaching¹
by Ted Shear
Departments and Universities across the country are grappling with many deep uncertainties about the future. There is no doubt that decreased enrollment and further cuts in public funding will mean budget shortfalls. But the depth of these cuts and precisely what operational consequences will follow remains murky. This is partly because so many of their determinants are the domain of various administrative bureaucracies and, even with healthy shared governance, they are not readily visible to individual faculty members. I’ve heard many of my professor friends express their concern about how graduate students and non-permanent faculty will be affected. While I do not wish to push the idea that institutional problems should or can be wholly addressed by the choices of lone actors, there are still some things that individual faculty members with permanent positions can do to help avoid making the situation worse for more vulnerable members of their communities. The purpose of this post is to suggest one thing that they can do.
In short, my suggestion is that when you receive the annual e-mail asking whether you would like to teach this Summer, decline.
Don’t misunderstand, I am aware that for those that normally take on these assignments, this will mean a sizable drop in expected pay. This is not a trivial matter. Those who choose to teach in the Summer under normal circumstances often do so for good reasons: perhaps they are the sole breadwinner in the family with their spouse normally taking on caregiving responsibilities for children or other family members; perhaps they are working hard to repay left-over student debt; perhaps they are helping financially support members of their family. These are all personal matters which are well outside the purview of appropriate topics of discussion amongst their colleagues. There are good reasons why permanent faculty take these assignments and I certainly don’t wish to diminish them.
Assistant professors in philosophy make roughly $60,000 a year depending on location or whether their institution is public or private. This may sound like a lot of money to graduate students or those in non-permanent positions, but it’s really not—especially for those with circumstances like those mentioned above. Teaching a short Summer course can mean a considerable boost to this income. At my own institution, CU Boulder, T/TT faculty are subject to the “3/9ths Rule” permitting a maximum of 1/3rd of annual salary to be earned by teaching outside the normal academic year. This means, for example, that a professor making $60,000 stands to earn up to an additional $20,000 for Summer teaching. While a single Summer course doesn’t reach this maximum (I was unable to locate an exact number), that’s a big difference. It would be understandably hard for anyone to pass up such a bump in salary. So, I reiterate that I am not intending to understate the personal sacrifice required by my proposal. While I’m certain that there are permanent faculty members who genuinely cannot afford to give up this extra income, I suspect there are many more who really could make do without it this year. What I am asking is for those of you who can manage to consider the relative harm to your colleagues and students caused by not having the opportunity to teach during the Summer.
Graduate students are being rushed out the door as departments try to reduce their tuition burdens. In at least one case I’m aware of, a student (at another institution) was told by their department only this week that they are expected to finish within the year even though they previously agreed with their adviser that they would wait another year and, as such, had not yet begun preparing their job market materials. This sort of thing is unconscionable under normal circumstances, but it’s even worse in the present circumstances where the job market barely exists. When that student defends their dissertation later this year, it would be tragic if their department were not able to give them work during the Summer because a permanent faculty member chose to teach. There are also many international graduate students who may rely on Summer teaching to maintain their visas—a concern exacerbated by the current administration’s chaotic shifts in their policies regarding international student visas.
The expected declining enrollment will also inevitably harm non-permanent faculty (like myself). Even in the normal academic year, there will be fewer courses left over after permanent faculty have received their teaching assignments. Although we are the least costly members of the faculty to employ (I receive $4,500/course in my position as a Lecturer at CU Boulder), we are also the first to be passed over when there are not enough courses to go around. Indeed, T/TT faculty, graduate students, recent graduate students, and Instructors are all given priority. Along with my fellow Lecturers, I am at the bottom of the barrel and will probably not be able to teach this Summer regardless of whether any permanent faculty opt to teach. I am actually quite proud that the Philosophy Department at CU Boulder (and likewise at my alma mater, UC Davis) supports their recent graduates as they navigate the job market by providing them with teaching. Still, I am sure to face hardship ahead as the true depth of the required budget cuts becomes clear in the coming weeks and I can only hope that I will be able to maintain my normal teaching load during the academic year. Although I am able to support myself without acquiring Summer teaching, the same is likely not true for many in my position. Many would be significantly harmed by a failure to procure a teaching assignment during the Summer.
While reflecting on these issues before I sat down to write this piece, I had considered proposing the introduction of departmental policies that prioritize graduate students and non-permanent faculty in the assignment of Summer teaching. Such policies have merit, particularly in their potential to overcome coordination problems, and deserve discussion, too. But I don’t want a policy debate to distract readers from a choice they can make themselves, now, that can make a difference.
To conclude, I know that nearly everyone’s financial situation will suffer from the economic decline caused by the pandemic and its impact on higher-education. As you think about what steps you might take to mitigate that personal cost, I hope that you will also think of the possible effects of your choices on other, more vulnerable members of your community.
¹ Thanks to Garrett Bredeson, Justin Caouette, Sophie Horowitz, Zak Kopkeien, Michaela McSweeney, Alastair Norcross, Abigail Pastore, Adam Sennet, Matt Shields, Colin Smith, Julia Staffel, and Alex Wolf-Root for their encouragement and feedback on this post.