Staffing the Crisis

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This year a strange thing happened to state universities.

Jonathan Sterne

Issue #40, October 1998

This year a strange thing happened to state universities. All across the United States, public universities experienced a surge in first year student (i.e. freshman) enrollment. Though most schools did not let in more applicants than usual, more people than usual decided to accept the invitation. While nobody is absolutely certain of the reasons, a commonly cited culprit is the rising cost of private education.

As a result of this surge in first-year students, universities have been scrambling to find the resources to provide the education they'd promised to these students. For instance, The New York Times reported that some University of Maryland students are living in hotels while the school finds extra dormitory space for them. Other first year students are making temporary residences out of dormitory lounges.

The University of Illinois, where I work and go to school, is one of those universities hit hardest. This year's first-year class of over 6,000 new students is the largest in the U of I's history. Like other schools, the University of Illinois did not admit more applicants than usual; but many more than usual accepted their invitations to come here. As a result, the school has spent most of last spring and all of the summer working to meet the needs of incoming students. One of the highest priorities has been to make sure there are enough sections of popular first-year courses to meet student demand. That means hiring more teaching assistants than usual.

This seems like a simple thing, but in practice it is much more complex. In the spring of 1996, the Graduate Employees Organization, my union, filed a petition for the University of Illinois to hold an official, Labor-Relations-Board sanctioned election for union representation. Essentially, if we'd been granted that election and then won it (and we would have won), the University would have been legally obligated to recognize us for the purposes of negotiating a collective bargaining agreement. Graduate employees would have had a contract by now, with real health benefits, better wages, better working conditions and clearly demarcated grievance procedures.

The administration went to court to prevent the election from happening. In addition to using the University's legal counsel, they used state tax money to hire an expensive law firm, Seyfarth and Shaw, known for their union-busting tactics. The union lost the initial round of the legal case and is currently appealing. Most important for my story here is the argument the administration used in the case. The administration essentially argued that graduate employees aren't employees, we are students. According to their reasoning, our jobs are for our own educational benefit and have nothing to do with the University's staffing needs.

Of course, lawyers can argue that anybody can learn something from a university job and therefore that it is educationally related. The question is, does the university treat us like students or employees when we work as teaching assistants? One way to determine that is to follow the money: I have to pay to enter certain classrooms as a student; I get paid to enter other classrooms as a teacher. Does the administration put forward enough money to make sure that every graduate student gets to teach a course in their area of specialization? No. While it's reasonable to expect that our areas of expertise will be well enough funded for us to take courses, graduate teaching assistants often wind up staffing classes that professors do not want to or are unable to teach. As labor scholar Cary Nelson has pointed out, it would take over a million dollars in professor salaries to hire faculty to teach Rhetoric 105, one of the most popular basic first-year composition courses.

All this means that while the administration is making narrowly technical legal arguments about the educational-relatedness of our jobs, the rest of the University knows better, and some departments are clamoring for anybody they can get to fill vacant staff positions.

The Labor Shortage

Much of the overflow in enrollment is in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS), and departments like English, History, Philosophy, and Math have found an unusually high demand for their most popular first year courses. Dennis Baron, head of English, reported that LAS had contacted him about offering additional sections of Rhetoric 105 (one of the basic first year composition courses at our school) and several basic undergraduate literature courses. To meet that demand he had to shuffle his teaching assistants — moving many English grad students from Rhetoric appointments to appointments teaching introductory English courses, and looking outside the department for additional teachers for Rhetoric. Because of the writing intensive nature of Rhetoric courses, the only reasonable option for the department was to offer more sections, since increasing class size would increase teachers' workloads and make it more difficult for students to get quality instruction. Literature courses, on the other hand, have "crept up in size over the years," said Baron, "and not as a direct result of the surge in freshmen. But they are generally limited by classroom size to 36 students; it's hard to find bigger classrooms on the quad."

Associate Chancellor for Public Affairs Bill Murphy said that colleges were asking departments to offer more courses and more sections, and only in some cases (like large lectures) to increase class size. More sections means more teachers; the question has been where to find them. James Barrett, head of History, reported that "the College [LAS] contacted us and requested that we offer more 100-level courses, or more sections of our current 100-level courses." Finding enough people to teach those additional courses has been difficult. Barrett cited the labor market as the most significant problem: "There's a real shortage of teaching assistants. It's very rare for us to go outside of our department [...] but I've had to do it more often than I'd like." Barrett's efforts have included hiring one of history's own recent PhDs to teach several courses, and having current history teaching assistants take on an extra section "with full compensation, of course," he added. Baron concurred: "it's been difficult finding qualified instructors" for Rhetoric courses. In addition to offering teaching assistantships to students in other departments, Baron also sought to hire visiting instructors — sometimes the English department's own PhDs — to fill the need for instructors. A certain number of grads have always found employment in departments other than the ones where they are seeking a degree, and some departments have had to hire grads from other programs just to staff the courses they need to offer undergraduates. In other words, both grads and departments have treated graduate employment as a labor market issue. First year over-enrollment has simply intensified and highlighted this state of affairs.

Asked why he thought it was so difficult to find qualified instructors for the added Rhetoric sections, Baron responded "I'm very conscious that we're underpaying people to do an important job." Baron speculated that better wages and benefits would make it easier for him to find qualified teachers for his courses.

A Bull Market: More Students = Greater Demand for Teaching Assistants

While better wages and benefits would no doubt be a boon to undercompensated graduate employees, the labor shortage raises a more fundamental issue. In the spring of 1996, the administration contested GEO's bid for a union election by arguing that graduate employees are not legally employees, that our assistantships are primarily for the purposes of our own education. Yet colleges and departments are treating graduate employment as a labor market: now that there are more new students to teach, more teaching assistants are being hired. When departments can't find teaching assistants, they hire visiting instructors to do the same jobs; since these visiting instructors are not enrolled as graduate students, their employment can't possibly be educationally related. In other words, they are looking for people to do a job.

University officials agree that the additional appointments are a direct result of the surge in enrollment. According to Murphy, approximately $700,000 in funding for extra course offerings was distributed from the Provost's office to the Colleges, which in turn parceled the money out to departments. Though LAS received the majority of this money, portions also went to the College of Fine and Applied Arts, and Administration Information and Support Services. The ultimate source of this money remains unclear. The Daily Illini (the unfortunately-named student newspaper here) quoted Provost Thomas Mengler saying "I think it's fair to say that we will be able to cover the costs (of the extra students) with the added tuition revenue." Murphy said that the direct link between tuition dollars and college budgets was not yet in place, but would be in coming years. The surge in available appointments is a direct result of the University's economic conditions: more students need more classes, and with the added revenue, the administration can afford to hire the teachers to staff them.

Though Mengler elsewhere said that "more of our graduate students will gain teaching experience," it is clear that demand exceeds any reasonable standard of educational relatedness. In fact, current market conditions seem to have produced the converse of the administration's scenario. Rather than providing teaching assistantships as a supplement to graduate education, in some cases disciplinary background clearly takes a back seat. As Baron put it, "you can train a law student to teach writing."

Graduate teaching assistants and part-time instructors are also in high demand because of declining ranks in teaching faculty. According to Murphy, the University has had a net loss of about 200 teaching faculty over the last 10 years. The University is currently receiving $1 million a year from the Illinois legislature to institute a "Faculty Excellence Program" aimed at bringing up the number of faculty. The program is designed to get more professors spending more time in undergraduate classrooms. Murphy added that the University was lobbying to get that amount increased to $5 million per year. While this effort is certainly laudable, it remains a hope at this point and not an accomplished fact. In the interim, a growing number of teaching assistants and part-time instructors will continue doing work for which the administration eventually hopes to hire faculty.

What the Shortage Means for Graduate Employees

It's clear that departments hire teaching assistants (and the administration provides funds for these hires) on the basis of how many courses they need to offer. This runs counter to the claim that grads are hired on the basis of their own educational needs, as administration lawyers alleged in their case against the GEO.

Graduate employees are clearly central to the University's educational mission. And, with the decline in the number of teaching faculty on campus, teaching assistants have become even more central to the University's mission of undergraduate education. The administration's line that our employment has nothing to do with the economics of undergraduate education is clearly a lie. The booming labor market for teaching assistants this fall signals what we as employees have always known: the administration needs us because we do the work of the University.

More importantly, and beyond the specifics of the case at my school, this temporarily booming market in underpaid, temporary positions signals universities' more longstanding and structural reliance on temporary labor in the form of graduate employees and visiting instructors. Though undergraduate and graduate students alike are promised an increase in the number of available professorships in coming years, the fact remains that at present a significant number of graduate students and unemployed PhDs are ipso facto treated as a surplus labor force by their institutions. This appears to be an era of receding paternalism, where educational institutions retain the rhetoric of apprenticeship and the medieval guild while behaving like temporary agencies when staffing their classrooms.

The solution to this problem is a simple matter of honesty. Educational institutions need to recognize when they are using people like employees and give those people the same benefits other employees already have. Part-timers and graduate employees deserve a basic benefits package and a living wage. Universities should take their rhetoric of shared governance and collegiality seriously enough to allow for shared governance in the workplace: real collective bargaining. This would send a message to employees that universities value the work they do, that graduate employees and part-timers are already professionals. It would also send a message to undergraduates and their parents that universities understand undergraduate education as something more than a source of revenue and a training ground for teachers.

For further reading:
Jo Thomas, "At State U, No Room at the Dorm for the Invited But Not Expected," The New York Times (Tuesday, 8 September 1998), p. A1. Cary Nelson, ed.,
Will Teach for Food: Academic Labor in Crisis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

Jonathan Sterne adapted this piece from an article he wrote for The Organizer, the official newspaper of the Graduate Employees' Organization at the University of Illinois. He has been active in GEO since 1994 and after serving twice as its parliamentarian and twice as co-editor of its newspaper is enjoying the status of rank-and-file member. He is about to finish a Ph.D. in Communications Research, and can be reached at

Copyright © 1998 by Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.

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