Feeling the Squeeze

How does UT's budget crisis actually affect the university's students and employees? In more ways than you'd think. Here are three perspectives from the frontlines.

As the state's budget crisis continues, the University of Tennessee is feeling the crunch. Acting president Eli Fly has said the university will think about limiting enrollment, laying off staff and cutting programs. Staff and faculty vacancies remain unfilled; students have experienced yet another tuition hike.

This is nothing new for UT. The university has had to cut services, employees and programs over the last decade, as state funding has remained largely static. Undergraduate enrollment has also increased slightly in the last 10 years, rising by between a few hundred and 1,000, according to John Clark, executive director of UT media relations.

UT's campuses, schools and academic departments have therefore struggled for several years to bring down costs, and their decisions have affected everyone from faculty and academic staff to students and support workers. Hiring freezes, downsizing, increased class sizes and the hiring of less qualified, worse paid instructors have changed the very nature of the UT experience.

What does all that actually mean on the day-to-day level? That's what we asked three people with intimate experience of the university: a professor, a student, and a longtime custodial worker.

Dr. Linda Bensel-Meyers
Associate Professor of English, Director of Composition

"It's clear our standards have gone down in the last 10 years to accommodate a larger student body."

If anyone knows about academic standards, it's Linda Bensel-Meyers. As director of the freshman English program, she bears responsibility for ensuring that 4,000 students each semester learn reading, writing and reasoning skills to take them through college and beyond.

Bensel-Meyers is more broadly known as the professor who drew the ire of Vols fans in 1999 when she suggested some football players weren't living up to UT's academic standards because their tutors were writing papers for them. Her allegations were picked up by ESPN.com, sparking investigations by the university and NCAA. She alleged in 2000 that athletes were guided toward easier majors. Both UT and the NCAA said they found no evidence of fraud.

Long-term financial woes and poor administrative communication have lowered the quality of UT's English education, Bensel-Meyers says. Administrators have taken away much of her power to direct the composition program and, she adds, their decisions are not always in the students' best interest.

"The problem I'm trying to address is that a lot of the decisions are being made for economic reasons, not for educational reasons," Bensel-Meyers says. "The [administrators] are not all being educated as to what the students need, but as to what looks best for the university."

She says she would like to see budget priorities evaluated anew, but the hiring of new provost Loren Crabtree threw the administration into a state of flux that left little time for reflection and revision. Most problematic for Bensel-Meyers, administrators have again increased class size.

"I think the primary [problem] is just class size because that leads to attrition as well as lowering the quality of education," Bensel-Meyers says. She says the cap for freshman composition class size has bounced from a low of 20 up to 22, up again to 25, back to 22 and up to 25 again. At that point, the College of Arts and Sciences assured her they would not raise the cap again.

"Then, without consulting either me or my staff, they moved it up to 28," she says. "It's become a top-down decision. I used to be consulted first."

Bensel-Meyers says it is nearly impossible to conduct introductions to the library and computer lab in these larger classes, so these modules are usually cut.

"It will make it hard for some of the students who come from small towns," and therefore have less experience with computers, she says.

The quality of composition education has also dropped because today's instructors are less experienced and bear fewer credentials, Bensel-Meyers says. When she came to the university 11 years ago, tenured professors with Ph.D.s taught most freshman composition courses. Now the task is split between instructors, most of whom only have MAs, and teaching assistants with still fewer credentials.

Teaching assistants make up about half of composition instructors, a significant decline since 1994 but still a major source of complaints among faculty and students alike. About three-quarters of English TAs are working toward their master's degrees, meaning they only have bachelor's degrees in hand.

Most composition instructors teach part-time, term-by-term, Bensel-Meyers says. Part-time instructors receive no job security and no health benefits. Once limited to teaching two classes per semester, they now struggle with as many as five. Full-time instructors receive benefits, but they are only guaranteed work on a yearly basis and cannot be rehired after five years. The university pays instructors about $3,000 per course.

While there may not be many financial perks to teaching composition at UT, the English department does offer its royalty funds as a lure to potential instructors. Department staff write college textbooks sold nationwide, and their royalties are pooled so part-time staff may fund supplies and services that directly impact students, such as scholarships to academic conferences.

"We sort of set up our own funding system when we knew we couldn't rely on the university," Bensel-Meyers says.

The use of part-time instructors has become more necessary as UT loses its full-time professors to other universities offering better salaries, she says.

"If the only way to save the institution is to exploit students and teaching staff, the very people we are here for, then we should just shut our doors."

Jillian Clay
4th-year economics major

"I just need to know, if my tuition is going to continue to go up 15 percent every semester, what am I paying for?"

Jillian Clay can name lots of things the university isn't paying for. Full-time professors, for one; she says teaching assistants have taught most of her classes. Functional computers, for another; she reports waiting up to 40 minutes to use computers that are slow and sometimes crash, destroying her work. The list goes on, and she says administrators' failure to communicate with students has added to her frustration.

"They need to tell us, just so we as students know what's going on in the university, why we can't get qualified professors, why we have to pay so much for parking and never find a parking spot," she says.

Working a 40-hour week at the Radisson downtown while taking 15 credit hours, the 24-year-old Clay barely keeps pace with her rising tuition, which now stands at about $3,000 a semester. When other students are tucked in their dorm beds, she's working the graveyard shift. At 7 a.m. she finishes work and, if it's a Tuesday or Thursday, sleeps until noon. Then it's on to the library to read, sitting by a window to force herself to stay awake. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, she can only catnap before charging on to class. She averages three to four hours of sleep a night.

That hectic schedule has taken its toll on her schoolwork, Clay says. She won't reveal her GPA but says of her grades, "They're not as good as they once were. I'm just barely trying to make it."

Clay receives only $800 a year in federal Pell Grants, so she's taken out loans that drive her further in debt. Caught in a Catch-22, Clay sacrifices the quality of her schoolwork to pay her way through college.

Clay isn't the only one struggling to stay upright against tuition's rising tide. Her twin sister Jacqueline works part time to pay out-of-state fees and raise her 5-year-old child. This year, UT raised Jacqueline's rent at Golf Range Apartments by $10 to $15 a month.

"She's barely making it," Jillian says.

Clay's major complaints against the university parallel those of Bensel-Meyers. Her freshman year classes were all taught by TAs. Now, three of her classes are taught by professors, and two by TAs.

"Where is the money going? Are they cutting professors? If so, then you have a real problem here, because we're paying for higher education. We're not paying for TAs who are the same age as us... We want professors."

She says her tuition money should pay for teachers with more classroom experience and more extensive knowledge in their fields.

"I also trust a professor, as opposed to a TA, with equipping me with the things that I am going to need once I graduate," she says.

Clay says she finds it difficult to register for classes, a popular complaint among the student body. Many courses fill quickly, and she has trouble getting the courses that will fit in her schedule.

The costs of a university education don't end with tuition, Clay says. The university charges $150 a semester for an "activities fee" to fund reduced tickets for cultural and sporting events, student health, new buildings, and other programs. Clay spends $340 a month on rent, $120 on food, $70 on electricity and more than $500 a month on car payments, insurance, and gasoline.

She says she spends "a good $400 a year" on books, making less than half that cost back by selling her used books.

"Some books you can't even sell back if they're not using it that semester," she says.

In this arena and others, Clay says students can work with each other to overcome financial difficulty and improve administrator-student communication.

"I've been thinking so much about before leaving here, not just bitching and complaining about it, but actually doing something to make a difference, creating some kind of organization to help students with books. Because I know buying books, for me it's hard."

Clay says such an organization could convince publishing companies to donate five books apiece.

"It's about students making a difference for each other. It's not just me that's feeling this way about UT. I'm sure it's a lot of people that feel the same way." But she thinks students could make a difference "if we all come together and say, 'What is the problem? Why does my tuition keep going up? Why can't we get good professors?'"

She adds that the administration should be open to hearing from students.

"If our views don't matter, then what the hell are we here for? You know, it's not a university if we don't count."

Sandy Hicks
Senior custodian at Melrose Hall; Co-chair, United Campus Workers

"We've lost our respect and our dignity. At one time UT used to respect their employees."

Sandy Hicks has worked as a UT custodian at the Melrose Hall dormitory for 23 years. She says employees were treated differently two decades ago, when the university paid more in real wages.

"The morale is down because everything is going up and yet pay is staying the same," Hicks says.

UT hourly wages start at $6.42, and raises are infrequent and slight. She says the university offers good benefits including annual leave, 401K plans, longevity pay, paid holidays and medical and dental insurance. While employees' co-pay percentage for health insurance remains steady at 80%, UT's insurance costs have gone up, so the workers' co-pay this year rose by $30 a year.

Thirteen years ago the university turned its classroom cleaning jobs over to contractors who pay less and offer no benefits, Hicks says. Now, she says, most employees work second jobs because UT's pay is so low. For the last several years, Hicks worked two daily jobs and one monthly cleaning engagement. Some days she would work seven hours cleaning an office after completing a full shift at UT. Hicks recently lost her second job because of the recession.

"It's just harder to live on UT wages. My husband draws disability, and that's hardly enough for us to live on," she says. Hicks says she has had to cut out some "luxuries" to make ends meet.

"I can't buy meat all the time. I can't buy milk all the time. I don't buy fruits because I just can't afford it."

Hicks says she no longer has free time. She often gets only two hours of sleep a night, and works six days a week. When Sunday rolls around, she spends it sleeping.

"I love to fish but I haven't at all this year," she says.

Many campus employees work overtime in the summer to make more money, Hicks says. During those months, students moving out and conference participants moving in create more work. At other times, overtime work is usually unavailable, she says.

Working conditions have also declined since she arrived at UT, Hicks says. Downsizing began 13 years ago, and the university cut more jobs four years ago.

"Basically what happens is, if you're not paying enough, you're not getting enough people to work.... With the downsizing we just have work overload."

For instance, several years ago the university laid off the employees who picked up litter around campus. The university still has its litter picked up, but by overburdened employees who already fulfill other positions, Hicks says. Secretaries have also been forced to do the jobs of several people, she adds.

Hicks and another Melrose Hall housekeeper have taken on the duties of a third person whose job was eliminated due to budget restraints. Now, in addition to cleaning bathrooms, hallways, lobbies and lounges, Hicks and her coworker must vacuum, sweep, and mop. Other new duties include cleaning the area outside the dormitory, and taking out the garbage twice rather than once a day.

"[The administrators] make decisions and they don't even think about the hardships or the way it affects employees. They're not stopping and thinking, 'Wait a minute. We're putting too much on these people.'"

Overwork and shorter payrolls have lowered the quality of service students and staff are receiving, Hicks says.

United Campus Workers, an independent union, started last year out of the student-speared living wage campaign, and has grown to about 50 members who pay $10 monthly dues. It is the only union on campus for hourly workers, and all hourly workers are eligible to join, including housekeeping, dining and library staff, student employees, temporary workers, and contractor employees.

Hicks says the university has raised the base pay several times because of the UCW. Workers recently received a 1.5 percent raise from the university in addition to a 2.5 percent mandated state employee raise from the government. The UCW also fought for and received an end to forced overtime.

Those changes have been hard won. UCW and the living wage proponents had to demonstrate publicly to get the university's attention, Hicks says. "They won't sit down and bargain with us," she says, describing the relationship between university and union as "unfriendly."

Now, UCW is pressing for a base pay of $9.50 with benefits and $11.50 without.

Like Bensel-Meyers and Clay, Hicks says the administration has failed at communication, and this creates more stumbling blocks for the employees.

"I think there needs to be a better line of communication between administration and employees.... There is a big communication problem in the whole university and this needs to be fixed.... It's a major thing because you can't fix a problem if you can't communicate."

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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