Steven Toth, a chemistry lecturer at the University of Michigan-Flint, loves to teach. According to Toth, his teaching experience at U-M Flint has been incredible, and he enjoys working with students and faculty there.
But Toth is considering leaving his job. He holds a doctorate in his field and teaches more students in the department than any other instructor, including tenured professors, but earns $28,000 a year.
“I’ve been working at U-M Flint now for many years, and just at this incredibly low salary, I haven’t been able to pull myself up at all,” Toth said. “I’ve been barely able to pay off my debts. I haven’t been able to afford a house. I can’t afford a nicer car. I can’t go on any vacations. We’ve been putting off starting a family for years because we can’t afford to have children.”
Toth is a member of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization, which represents about 1,700 non-tenured faculty members across the three U-M campuses. Contract negotiations between LEO and University administrators are still underway; the two parties convened Friday at a regents’ meeting in Dearborn, focusing on gaps in lecturer salaries between Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn.
Lecturers in Ann Arbor are paid significantly more than those in Flint and Dearborn, and the administration’s newest proposal would maintain that disparity by raising the minimum salary after three years to $45,000 in Ann Arbor, $37,000 in Dearborn and $36,000 in Flint. Annual increases and equity adjustments would also be higher in Ann Arbor. Though LEO organizers are not yet satisfied with the proposed raises for Ann Arbor lecturers, they are particularly unhappy with the University’s offers for the other two campuses.
LEO member Erik Marshall, a lecturer of language, culture and communication at U-M Dearborn, said especially on the Flint and Dearborn campuses, many lecturers struggle to make living wages.
“The biggest sticking point right now is that the administration refuses to put more money into Dearborn and Flint,” Marshall said. “I have to work other jobs, I have to work at other colleges and things to make ends meet, which is not fair to our students.”
LEO feels the gap in funding between U-M campuses suggests the University undervalues Flint and Dearborn students. More students on the Flint and Dearborn campuses come from underrepresented socioeconomic backgrounds, and over 90 percent of Flint and Dearborn students are from the state of Michigan, compared to 60 percent in Ann Arbor. LEO President Ian Robinson, a sociology lecturer at U-M Ann Arbor, thinks the way the University’s proposal prioritizes the Ann Arbor student body contradicts the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative.
“We talk about DEI and we’re willing to commit $85 million over five years to that principle here in Ann Arbor, and I celebrate that,” Robinson said. “But we have to apply that principle in a consistent fashion.”
Robinson said the administration has the money to increase lecturers’ wages. Lecturers teach half of all credit hours in Dearborn and Flint and a third in Ann Arbor, and many work full-time.
LEO reported the University made a $377 million profit off lecturers in the 2016-2017 school year. Robinson said despite this, the administration seems reluctant to shift more money to Flint and Dearborn.
The disparity stems partly from the fact that the University of Michigan, unlike some other public university systems, separates funds between its three campuses so that each branch has its own endowment and budget. U-M Ann Arbor has a $10.9 billion endowment and is ranked No. 8 wealthiest university in the world, whereas U-M Flint has an endowment of $96 million. But Toth said because of the “three-pot system,” if Flint or Dearborn needs funding, Ann Arbor isn’t obligated to help out.
Despite its dissatisfaction with the current proposal, LEO is under pressure to sign a new five-year agreement before May 29, the deadline set by the administration last month. The current contract expired April 20, and on April 29 the University warned the contract would officially end 30 days later if the two parties could not settle on a new agreement by then.
Robinson said the May 29 deadline serves as a threat but will not actually end the administration’s relationship with LEO. Due to state law, compensation negotiations have to continue until a new contract is established.
“Federal law, which governs the private sector, and its counterpart in the public sector, which is state law, mandate that even if a contract expires, the wage and benefit stuff stays in place from whatever was in the previous contract – the one that’s now expired – until such time as a new contract has been negotiated,” Robinson said.
Wages and benefits will remain topics of discussion after May 29, but Robinson said non-compensation issues – aspects of the contract not directly related to salary – may not stay in place. For instance, the University reserves the right to stop deducting LEO dues from lecturers’ pay, a provision of the expired contract that makes it easier to keep track of LEO members. Still, Robinson said, LEO will not rush to sign an agreement before the deadline unless the administration’s proposal satisfies all demands. He added whether or not negotiations conclude in time depends on what the administration offers. Marshall said LEO is prepared to keep negotiating during the summer.
“We’re just trying to remind the administration that we’re still going to be here in the summer and we’re not going away,” Marshall said. “We’re fighting for what we think is right, what most people think is right, just to lift people out of poverty.”
Going forward, LEO plans to keep directing the University’s attention to disparities between lecturer salaries in Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn. According to Toth, the underpayment of Flint and Dearborn lecturers is symptomatic of the administration’s tendency to separate itself from Flint and Dearborn. Toth said the main campus only associates itself with Flint and Dearborn for its own benefit, as when the administration needs diversity statistics.
“Even though we all have the same name, we’re treated as completely different entities,” Toth said. “We’re not allowed to say the word ‘Wolverine’ at all at U-M Flint. The Wolverine is a main campus thing. Our mascot is actually the grizzly bear.”