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EducationOne 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 for 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 at UH's MFA and PhD programs, considered among the finest in the nation, suddenly started asking questions during the interview stage of their application processes.
"When we're doing admissions and interviewing PhD 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 into 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 PhD students receive some $11,200 a year. According to Beth Lyons, one of the PhD TFs, such annual rates are significantly below those of 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, after fees are paid — nearly 20 percent for those pursuing MFAs and 16 percent for PhD students — the stipends at UH drop to $7,800 for MFAs and $9,400 for PhDs. Moreover, while tuition hikes are waived for the TFs, they can't avoid jumps in student fees. Whenever a new fee is levied — for, say, a new football stadium — these MFA and PhD 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 positions are expressly prohibited by the students' initial contracts. "Any other work is in violation of the contract we signed," Lyons told Hair Balls.
Citing an internal survey of 49 respondents, Lyons said that TFs required an average of 1.9 outside jobs simply to subsist. "Seventy-one 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."
And yet, according to those involved, the university has done nothing to supplement the income for the previous two decades. English Professor Rob Boswell says the full-time faculty stands sympathetic to the TFs' plight and that, despite the new publicity, this is not the first time the department has attempted to alleviate the situation.
"Last semester, we wrote a letter saying that we felt this issue needed to be addressed, but we did not get a response [from the administration]," Boswell said. "This isn't the first year we've done something, either — last year the department wrote about the problem and also didn't get a response...They should have gotten a raise 15 years ago. I'm sympathetic, and I believe we have a good administration, but this one has slipped through the cracks."
Thus far, the TFs' petition has more than 6,000 views. However, when Hair Balls contacted her last week, Shawn Lindsey, the university's director of media relations, said she had no idea such a petition existed. On Wednesday, she sent the following statement:
Teaching fellows are students in the graduate program who receive a stipend as partial compensation for providing teaching support as a part of their education. 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.
The university is aware of the petition and is engaged in conversation with the fellows on this important topic. We value the service the fellows provide. To attract the best and brightest students, we recognize the need to offer competitive stipends within our financial and budget constraints.
Thus far, though, no dialogue seems to have taken place. Likewise, viewing a $7,800 annual salary as sufficient — especially when the university prohibits secondary work, and the Health and Human Services poverty line for an individual lies at $11,170 — seems laughable.
"I'm grateful to be here. The faculty are amazing, and I work with most gifted people and some incredible writers, but I don't feel like I should have to go into debt for my degree," Lyons said. "I'm a badass teacher, but I don't feel like I should make $1,000 per month. I'm a professional, and I feel like we should be treated like professionals."