Grad Unionization or No, Pitt Needs More Financial Transparency

Graduate student unionization.  Of late, it seems that those of us engaged in funded graduate study are caught between [insert Game of Thrones reference].  As a student at the University of Pittsburgh, for example, in the past couple weeks I’ve received an email from Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia Beeson laying out the university’s official position.  I’ve also been following the Intellectual Poverty blog of one Andrea Hanna, a graduate student in communications at Pitt, and supporter of unionization.  Let’s parse the claims within, and see what’s going on.

Beeson basically claims that education (including networking, the development of practical skills, etc.), rather than financial compensation, is the primary point of graduate study.  As such, she doesn’t want to foreground financial concerns.  If there are any issues with the current funding system, she argues, they should be addressed piecemeal—on a departmental basis—rather than through the broader framework of unionization / collective bargaining.

Hanna, on the other hand, claims that the university is starving her to death!  Having come to Pitt from Northern Ireland, she finds it very difficult to get by on her graduate stipend.  Among other measures, she’s had to resort to handouts from a local foodbank.  Her blog is dedicated to tracking this “intellectual poverty” and her attempts to overcome.

Now, I’m not going to make a claim for or against unionization.  I would like to say, though, that my experience as a grad student at Pitt (five years as a PhD candidate in the English department), bears little resemblance to Hanna’s.  Still, I respect what she’s doing.  I think transparency is important: we need to get our (financial) experiences out in the open so we can have an honest debate about what problems exist and how they can be solved.  In short, we shouldn’t cede to the administration’s desire to obscure financial concerns.  As such, let me relate my experience.

My official job title at Pitt is “teaching fellow.”  According to Pitt’s Graduate Studies website, this means I make $9,590 per term, or $19,180 per year (plus health insurance).  In exchange, I teach one section of freshman composition (or a similar course) per semester.  My class meets for 3 hours a week.  As I’ve taught this class before, my out-of-class preparation time is limited—probably about 5 hours a week (this includes meeting with students, reading/responding to student emails, grading blog posts, etc.).  Also, five times a semester I read a batch of student essays: this is pretty time-intensive, taking about 8 hours per batch.

So, over the course of a fifteen-week semester, I work about 160 hours (45 in-class, 75 preparation, 40 grading).  For this I get paid $9,590, or about $60 per hour.  In the English department, funding along these lines is guaranteed for at least five years.

Unlike Hanna, I find I am able to live quite comfortable on my Pitt salary.  I have a roommate, and thus pay only about $700 per month for rent and utilities (gas, electricity, cable/wi-fi).  I buy groceries at Trader Joe’s, where I spend about $250 a month.  For recreation I do regular millennial stuff: drink craft beer, go out to eat, see bands.  I own a 2003 Toyota Corolla (so no car payment), and though I have student loans, am fortunate that they are in deferment (hence no loan payments).  So in short, despite making a relatively low wage, as a single, rather frugal person, I find that almost every month I have money left over.

I don’t want to imply that my experience is typical.  In fact, after reading Hanna’s blog, I recognize that it’s not.  As such, whether grad students unionize or not, I feel that the university needs to do a better job of making salary / work information publicly available for comparison.  How much, for example, does Hanna (or a biology PhD) make per hour of work?  How much do they actual bring home, and were they appropriately informed of this situation before taking a position at Pitt?  These questions obviously inform whether unionization is needed.  Likewise, if the university refuses to provide such information, one must conclude that unionization is indeed needed.

Of course, financial transparency should also extend to faculty members.  How much do faculty and staff in the English or communications department make, for example?  How does this compare to those in the Business school?  At many colleges this information is publicly available.  Not at Pitt.  Because of her rank as one of the highest paid university employees, we know that Provost Beeson earned $492,133 in 2016.  Hanna claims to make $17,500 per year.  This indicates that Beeson is approximately 28 times more valuable to the university than Hanna.  Is this true?  I don’t know.  I do feel, though, that we should get all the salary data out in the open, so we can properly debate such claims.

So, in short, from what I’ve seen, any claim that graduate students at Pitt, as a whole, are “impoverished” is a bit ridiculous.  But some student employees obviously have grievances.  I call on the university to compile and make available detailed salary and work information, so that the members of the Pitt community can decide if these complaints are valid.

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