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Teachers College course assistants say they’re underpaid, seek Student Senate solution

  • Kiera Wood / Senior Staff Photographer
    ACCOUNTING | TC doctorate student Daniel Souleles is working with the TC Student Senate's institutional affairs committee to shed new light on student opinions of the schools’ budgetary priorities.

Continuing concerns about unfair workloads for course assistants, under-compensation, and the state of the budget at Teachers College in the wake of a $300 million fundraising initiative have some students seeking their own answers to their complaints.

Daniel Souleles, an applied anthropology doctoral student at TC and chair of the institutional affairs committee of the TC Student Senate, is leading an “anthropological study” with the committee looking into the college’s budget.

Among his complaints is that TC course assistants—who officially have fewer work requirements than teaching assistants—and adjuncts who teach Core Curriculum courses at Columbia are getting paid relatively low wages, despite working the same amount as their colleagues at Columbia.

He described the study, which includes interviews asking 31 people from various budget offices at TC, as an anthropological way of answering practical concerns about the role of course assistants in the wider University.

While results are still being reviewed and will not be released until the group finds a publication, blog, or other outlet through which to disseminate the information, Souleles hopes the findings will help shape new budget allocations. 

One way he wants to do so is creating a “student budget,” which would be presented to the senate.

“No one’s really tried to do a student budget before, so it’s all new,” Souleles said.

Though Souleles’ initiative addresses the larger student perception, the core budgetary issues from students still include obtaining full funding for doctoral students and increasing salaries for course assistants and adjuncts—something that has long been a concern for students of TC.

Overworking students

Students, however, feel that despite official guidelines differentiating between CAs’ and TAs’ workloads, CAs still do similar amounts of work and are paid five times less. 

“I’m sure you know that over on Columbia, on the main campus, course assistants or teaching assistants are being paid $5,000, while at Teacher’s College, for the same job, students are only paid $1,000,” Robert Cox, president of the TC Student Senate, said. “We feel like this is an egregious fault upon students, and it’s insulting.”

Jon-Paul Paolino, a TC graduate, who was a personal course instructor and assistant in probability, statistics, and linear regression classes both at TC and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said that he did essentially the same amount and kind of work at both schools, but that there was a difference in the teaching styles.

“I noticed that at TC there was a stronger emphasis on actually teaching the material as opposed to just running through and grading through homework and finals as quickly as possible,” Paolino said. “We went through the material as quickly as possible at GSAS. That was the main difference.”

“CAs go from being paid $800 to $1,000, that’s interesting,” Souleles said, referring to an earlier increase in the assistants’ salary. “But if I go across the street, which is what I do, I get paid $5,000 for a class I TA when I work with undergraduates.”

Official TC administrative guidelines say that the CAs’ $1,000 per semester salary translates to around 83 total hours of work at $12 per hour. CAs are not expected to grade papers, unless they are a degree level higher than the class’ students.

TC Provost Thomas James and Vice Provost William Baldwin expressed their concern for students, but Baldwin said that he’s only heard about the issue of the salaries of course assistants through the senate.

“I have never had individual students coming to me saying that he or she was appointed as a CA in a class and is in an awkward situation, as the faculty member or instructor is asking to put in 20 hours a week,” Baldwin said. “One of the keys, I think, is making it clear to both students and faculty that hiring somebody as a course assistant and having them work for 20 hours a week is abusive and against our policies, and we’re not allowing it anymore.”

More money coming in?

In the meantime, administrators at TC are saying more money is going to become available for student scholarships and grants.

Suzanne Murphy, the vice president for development and external affairs at TC, said that scholarships are the top priority when it comes to distributing funds from the school’s $300-million Where the Future Comes First campaign. 

While new scholarships, including a $1 million 125th Anniversary scholarship, are scheduled to be announced to students next week, Murphy said that CA salaries, as far as she knows, are not part of the budget plan.

“The college is working hard on all issues related to student funding and is committed to including equitable packages that will include financial aid, course assistant salary, and the like,” she said. “It works diligently day in and day out to accomplish that, and I am a part of those conversations, but whether or not this is directly going to come from fundraising or not remains to be seen.”

She added that as TC brings in additional resources, such as student or faculty support, the overall budget might be positively affected.

“These resources could alleviate the budget and put us in a more stable position to make other kinds of budget decisions,” she said.

James and Baldwin described various plans that are underway for doctoral and master’s degree candidates, which include a dissertation fellowship for advanced, full-time doctoral students to cover course costs and their dissertations, and support for faculty who are editors of peer-reviewed journals.

James also said the Provost’s Investment Fund, which gives innovation grants to faculty, can help. Part of this is the Course Staffing Model, an effort to create a TA position at TC.

“We’re using a group of faculty and students to flesh out what a teaching assistant model can look like at TC, which is a professional school,” James said. “We are doing that so we can begin channeling funds into it for full doctoral funding and are building off a system that can make that work, because a TA at TC will look very different from a TA at Columbia. We have to figure that, so we’re doing that right now.”

Room for improvement

Souleles said that during his work on the study, the opportunities for communication between students and administrators have grown, but there is still room for improvement.

“I really advocate the idea for shared governance, and the administration has been supportive and has spent time talking with us, which is nice, so it hasn’t been a fight,” Souleles said.

Cox said that the senate was able to receive permission from trustees to form a board of trustees budget committee consisting of students to address how to organize the budget. He noted that part of the reason for the institutional affairs committee’s project is to involve students—a goal which corresponds to the desired end product of Soulele’s and the institutional affairs committee’s study.

Cox also said he is looking at TC’s Faculty Executive Committee to release a resolution saying CAs and adjuncts are not being fairly compensated.

“It would reveal that it would be in the best interest for all involved to give a significant raise to those individuals,” he said.

Baldwin said the initiative is an interesting exercise in spurring conversation and revealing the differences between what information the administrators have and what the students and faculty of TC have.

“The picture both on the revenue side and the expense side is much more complex and detailed than the summaries that they were taking a look at,” he said. “So, if you’re trying to have a conversation about staffing levels and levels of investment for different parts of the college, it’s important to know that when the college distributes a budget report as part of a conversation, the categories are consolidated rather than disaggregated.”

Nonetheless, Baldwin said he found the students’ efforts inspiring.

“The senior staff and colleagues with whom I’ve talked about it thinks that the spirit in which it is engaged was very refreshing, open, collegial, and cooperative, and I enjoyed that,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the people interviewed in the study. 31 members of various TC budget offices were interviewed, not 40 students. Spectator regrets the error.

josephine.mcgowan@columbiaspectator.com  |  @josie_mcgowan

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