By Robert Block
As Erica Seubert stepped up to the lectern to deliver her prepared statement to the college board, the infant resting in her arms looked forward with a blank, quizzical expression on his face. With one tiny hand, he gripped the bright green fabric of his mother’s shirt.
It read: “Fair Contract Now!”
Seubert, a biology professor at COC, was next in a line of faculty speakers that stretched past the packed audience seating in the boardroom out the door to the courtyard.
There, the Faculty Association had erected an Easy-Up to shield those who couldn’t find seating inside from the icy February rain. Most of them were wearing the same green shirt. Some even had a matching pin.
They were there to appeal directly to the board members to increase their pay.
In the previous weeks, negotiations between the college and the faculty association had broken down and the two sides appeared to be at an impasse. Normally, these negotiations took place behind closed doors. The college and faculty association had previously agreed to resolve all disputes through a system of non-binding arbitration. This time, however, they were unable to reach an agreement through the normal means.
The faculty association had rejected the board’s initial proposal to increase its budget for full-time faculty by 3.71 percent. They argued that the raise was insufficient to combat a rising cost of living and failed to keep pace with the raises campus administrators had given themselves.
“When you look at what our faculty has received over the last 10 years and you adjust for cost of living, their salaries have actually been reduced by 0.7 percent,” said Faculty Association lead negotiator Garrett Hooper. “Meanwhile, our administrators have seen their salaries increase by 15 percent on average.”
The faculty members hoped that sharing their individual stories could succeed where traditional negotiations had failed.
One after another, they approached the lectern and shared details of their personal struggles with the financial hardships that they believed the school board was forcing them to undergo unnecessarily.
One faculty member from the music department described how the pay for his position had not changed in nearly 30 years. After describing his seemingly modest role as an accompanist and the years of education with multiple degrees needed to qualify for it, he revealed that he makes only $18-per-hour.
Debt accumulated from previous education was on the mind of many faculty members present. When Seubert spoke, she said that prior to teaching at COC she had earned her Ph.D. from USC. Between that and the interest accumulated from her undergraduate program, she entered the teaching profession with nearly $200,000 in student debt.
It was a constant weight that she said prevented her from living in the community where she teaches. With a Ph.D. from a highly ranked university program, she believed that she could have had her pick of positions at other universities or even in the private sector. However, she chose to teach at COC regardless.
She saw it as an opportunity to give back to the community where she grew up and introduce the idea of higher education to a body of students who are more likely to be career focused. Despite living under the pressure of crushing student debt, she continued to advocate for her students to pursue university degrees.
According to an analysis published by the College Board, over the last 30 years the cost of education has skyrocketed by over 200 percent. Students pay on average nearly $10,000 per year to attain their degrees.
This comes as overall living costs have risen along a similar trajectory. In a report published by CNBC, the authors note that the median cost of a house in the United States rose by over six times since 1940. This calculation accounts for inflation and suggests that the costs are increasing in real terms.
In spite of these discouraging trends, COC students are still enthusiastic about pursuing four-year degrees and beyond.
One student at the event told the board how his professors inspired him to consider attending a four-year university for a degree in political science.
He explained how in high school he struggled as a student, barely managing to eke out passing grades in his classes. However, upon attending COC he encountered professors who he said sparked his passion. Since enrolling at COC, he said that he felt proud to say that he had maintained a 4.0 grade point
But, is the quality of education at an institution really dependent on how much its educators are paid?
According to one study looking at teacher pay in Wisconsin, the answer might be no. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty analyzed standardized testing results and teacher pay rates in the state between 2011 and 2016. They found that not only did student performance not increase with teacher pay, it actually responded negatively to it.
Schools that paid their teachers more were shown by these researchers to be less effective overall at educating their students. While the study did not attempt to explain the reason behind this this seemingly counter-intuitive correlation, some commentators have proposed that it may have more to do with the way that teachers negotiate for pay than the pay itself.
“Teachers unions promote a strict pay scale that rewards any teacher for years taught—be they exceptional or mediocre or lousy—incentivizing longevity, not performance,” wrote Daniel Buck in an article for the Foundation for Economic Education.
According to Buck, union protections make it difficulty and often cost prohibitive to dismiss poorly performing educators. He cited one study from Stanford that suggested it cost $200,000 on average to fire a teacher and that the process to do so often lasted for nearly two years.
For him, the issue of teacher pay becomes problematic when it is presented as a monolithic issue. For educator pay to be an effective tool that benefits students, he argues it must be based on the performance of individual teachers.
Back at COC, Buck’s perspective was not among those heard at the board meeting.
“Educators don’t teach for the money, but they deserve to be compensated for the important work that they’re doing,” said COC Business Professor Gary Collis. Collis was standing in the courtyard bundled up in a thick navy-blue trench coat. His greying blonde hair almost blended in with the cold concrete walls of the courtyard.
Despite teaching labor law to his students, this was the first time that Collis had ever been a member of a union.
“It gives me an interesting perspective from an educational point of view,” he said. “I get to experience what I’m teaching.”
His interest in the proceedings was more than academic, however. “Budgets are all about priorities, and I think the faculty are saying that they hope the board at COC will make the faculty a greater priority,”.
While none of the board members agreed to comment directly on the negotiations, college spokesperson Eric Harnish was able to provide a statement. “The college values the contributions of all employees and is committed to working through the negotiations process and reaching an outcome that is beneficial for everyone,” he said.
He acknowledged that the exact details of the negotiations were confidential and that he could not speak to the amount of progress being made behind closed doors. And to many of the faculty members in attendance those discussions seemed to be of secondary concern.
Although they were there to petition the board on the specific issue of salary stagnation, almost every professor made it a point to express their solidarity with their fellow faculty members and their loyalty to their students before discussing pay.
“It moves you when you see the difference that we make, because that’s why we’re here,” said Early Childhood Education Professor Jennifer Paris. “It’s why we do the things that we do.”