Kelly’s Story: Duke Admin Shouldn’t Make Faculty Poverty a Teachable Moment

Crossposted from Duke Faculty Union’s website

Last night I was up all hours scrolling through Craigslist looking for food service jobs again. Even after four years on the Duke University faculty, they have yet to tell me if I’ll be back next semester and my wages are so low I don’t have the luxury to wait to find out. This year I managed to avoid taking a second job during the school year but job uncertainty and low pay mean no cushion, no way to pay the bills or put food on my own table.

Looking for food service work triggers memories of waiting tables for students I’ve taught who are shocked to see me in that role. Most students don’t understand the dedication, resilience, and sharp interpersonal skills food service requires and can’t imagine that a faculty member at Duke must wait tables to make ends meet.

I’m far from alone. I’m just one of the 40 percent of non-tenured or tenure-track Duke faculty without job security, anxious to learn each semester if we’ll have a contract. Despite our education, experience and dedication to our students, we earn an average of less than $30,000 a year with no benefits of any kind.

Right now, the administration has the power and the opportunity to pay us more than poverty wages. Knowing that we’re stronger together than any of us could be alone, non-tenure track faculty voted overwhelmingly to form a union last year. Since then, we’ve been negotiating our first contract with the administration. We’ve made great progress on a number of issues but now they’re now they’re dragging their feet, reluctant to increase our pay even as we’re held to the highest standards in our classrooms.

When I earned my master’s degree and chose a career in academia, I believed I’d work hard, earn raises, and work my way up the ladder. That’s part of what it means to be American, right? Do everything right and you’ll be rewarded.

It turns out I was right about the working hard but wrong about the rest. It never occurred to me that joining the faculty at Duke University would mean no raises, no way to advance, and no guarantees of a job semester to semester. I certainly never thought working for such a prestigious institution would mean living on the precarious edge of the poverty line.

In April, Duke celebrated raising more than $3 billion dollars for financial aid and construction projects, demonstrating their commitment to their students and their immense resources. While affordable tuition and attractive buildings are important, nothing affects student learning more than top-notch faculty.

We represent Duke in the classroom, pouring our hearts and minds into our work. It’s only right that the administration acknowledge our expertise and dedication by offering fair pay.

Last year, one of my students showed up in my section at the restaurant. The next day, she came to class asking about my education and background, questioning my qualifications to teach her. I used it as a teachable moment. The bottom line, though, is that I didn’t earn my degree so I could better explain why Duke doesn’t pay me for the value I bring to students’ education. Duke must offer higher pay so teachable moments occur in the classroom from professors sharing their professional expertise.