Student assistants are paid more than lecturers at UC. Ripple effects of 2022 strike

Shannon Garland has been a college teacher for 10 years, including four at the University of California, Merced.

She is a lecturer in music and has a doctorate from Columbia University. Planning, testing and grading are among the duties she handles for her classes. Garland estimates that she spends at least 15 hours per week on every class.

Imagine her surprise to discover that she earns less than her teaching assistant, who Garland says helps her but does not have primary responsibility for teaching classes.

Teaching 56 enrolled students in Elements and Cultures of Hip-Hop, Garland was credited for about 33.3% of a full-time instructional workload, because UC Merced requires lecturers to teach three courses per semester to meet a full-time standard. However, her student teaching assistant was credited 50%, which means getting paid for 20 hours per week, for helping in this class.

“It’s ridiculous that somebody could have just graduated from undergrad, but they could be making more money per class than a lecturer with a PhD who has been teaching for five or six years,” Garland said. “It just speaks to the (idea that the) university does not value its teaching.”

This pay inequity is not unique to UC Merced.

At UC Santa Cruz, teaching assistants earn about $300 more per month per class than lecturers.

Amanda Reiterman resigned after inadvertently learning about the pay discrepancy. She said she felt the pay inversion was an insult and reflects what she sees as UC’s devaluation of education.

“I was included in hiring documents for my former student, who could be my TA (teaching assistant), and I saw that he was earning $3,200, whereas I was receiving about $2,800 per month,” said Reiterman, former lecturer at UC Santa Cruz history department.

Reiterman said when she taught the class Woman and Gender in the Ancient Greek World, two TAs were under her supervision, one was an undergraduate student in her class the previous year.

“I said, this is crazy, and I asked for an unscheduled raise to reflect my work mentoring graduate students and managing these really large classes of 120 students, and they said, No,” she added.

After her pay raise was rejected, Reiterman brought the pay issue to her union — University Council-American Federation of Teachers, which found the issue was prevalent throughout the UC system.

According to Reiterman, most lecturers receive 30% to 40% credit per course, which means the wage is based on the expected workload for about 13 hours, except for classes with 500 or more students. The union further found that some lecturers see a pay drop when they graduate and stay in the same department to teach. There are also lecturers getting less money for teaching the same class that a graduate student instructs, wrote UC-AFT Vice President Josh Brahinsky in an open letter.

Tara Thomas, a first-year lecturer at UCSC’s literature department, saw the pay drop after receiving master’s and doctoral degrees from the same department.

“I was a graduate student instructor at the time, fighting for higher wages, but I graduated before it was implemented,” said Thomas.

Back in 2021 before the student union strike and under the old contract, Thomas made $2,000 take-home pay. In 2023, putting in 20 hours a week to teach a 5-unit course, the lecturer received a $2,332 monthly payment over the three-month quarter. Since UCSC wouldn’t guarantee a full-time teaching load for lecturers, Thomas had to work another job to afford to live in the area.

“The University of California recognizes lecturers’ valuable contributions to fulfilling our teaching mission across the university system. We strive to provide competitive compensation for these integral employees,” the UC Office of the President said in a statement.

Lecturers are considered contracted, non-tenured staff, whose teaching course load is not guaranteed. The pay discrepancy is not new but has been magnified by graduate students’ contract negotiation in 2022 that saw teaching assistants receive a 26% wage increase over three years in addition to pay bumps based on experience.

By October 2024, teaching assistants at six of the nine UC campuses with an assigned workload of 20 hours per week will receive a minimum nine-month salary of $34,000. For UC Berkeley, UCSF and UCLA, graduate student assistants will make at least $36,500.

For UC-AFT’s current contract ratified in 2022, lecturers will see a wage rise totaling 20% through 2025 with additional merit and promotion increases. The minimum annual salary for a first-year full-time lecturer who teaches 40 hours a week in the 2023-24 academic year is $66,259.

Neither contract guarantees work hours. Wages are calculated based on the appointment percentage and hourly rate. A full-time lecturer’s workload cannot exceed 100% and students’ are capped at 50%.

In effect, a student teaching assistant, with less education and experience, will earn more than a lecturer on a class by class basis.

UC attributes appointment differences to disparate expectations.

“Teaching assistants are also graduate students learning how to provide instruction, so the amount of work and type of work assigned to TAs is weighed differently than how we assess the work assigned to our lecturers,” reads the UC statement.

Katie Rodger, UC-AFT president, said the union is seeing the pay inversion happen for more lecturers.

“What we’re trying to do is immediately turn our attention to the university and say, ‘Look, you settled this huge contract with UAW. It seems fair, it seems right, it seems professional that you would pay instructors more than the people who are supporting their classes,’ ” she said.

Rodger said the union doesn’t have an estimate of how many lecturers are affected because they don’t have the salary data for graduate student workers, and they do not encourage members to request pay information from their teaching assistants. In addition, lecturer pay varies from campus to department, so the union is informed by extensive self-records with lecturers, which complicates data gathering.

The union is organizing members to write letters to campuses’ executive chancellors and provosts demanding a pay raise or workload adjustments as the bargaining contract only sets a floor rate. Over 2,500 letters have been sent but neither individual lecturers nor the union has received a formal reply. Some lecturers talked to their departments or higher management team, said Rodger, and the general feedback was that they have to wait until the next contract negotiation in 2026.

“The University strives to provide fair, equitable and consistent compensation across its employee groups and will consider these important issues as it enters negotiations with bargaining units in the coming months,” a statement provided to The Fresno Bee said.

Brahinsky, the union’s vice president, said job security was prioritized in the last negotiation in 2021 as the university was not required to give any notice regarding subsequent hiring. About 80% of lecturers — besides those who have worked years and earned the title of “Continuing lecturers” — used to look at the course enrollment system to find out whether they have classes to teach the following semester.

“We really haven’t paid attention to the wage issue, because we were just so concerned with just getting hired,” he said.

Garland, the lecturer at UC Merced, will soon move to the East Coast for a faculty position. It will be the first time in 11 years that she will not have to hustle to apply for a teaching position over the summer.

“The fact that there are tens of thousands of underemployed PhD holders across the country means that you can always rely on somebody who just needs a job, and they’re willing to take this low pay,” Garland said.

“I hate to say this: UC Merced as an institution does not care about its students. It cares about rankings, reputation, branding, research money,” she said. “But as an institution, the upper administration — the people don’t teach and have never taught our students — they do not care.”