The University of Tennessee Is Being Lauded as a Higher-Ed Role Model—Just Not for Its Workers

The University of Tennessee Is Being Lauded as a Higher-Ed Role Model—Just Not for Its Workers

The University of Tennessee Is Being Lauded as a Higher-Ed Role Model—Just Not for Its Workers

The Tennessee governor’s budget will subsidize students’ college tuition with cuts to college workers’ benefits.


You wouldn’t think folks at the University of Tennessee would have much to protest about: the state has been hailed as a model for public higher education reform. Governor Bill Haslam’s celebrated plan for tuition-free community college statewide has become a national model for the White House’s much-hyped community-college-for-all proposal, and the governor’s latest budget proposes a $1.5 million expansion of the tuition break to older adults attending two-year programs, along with extra grants to reward schools for academic performance. But the protests are coming from one group on campus that’s more concerned with the payroll than with the dean’s list. The workers who make the university system run worry that while “college access” is broadening, their economic security may continue to shrink.

The new budget would impose major “reforms” to the healthcare benefits of career civil servants. The cutbacks for retired workers and the newest hires, according to Commercial Appeal, include “ending eligibility for pre-age-65 retiree health insurance to state employees and school-district employees hired after July 1, 2015; ending eligibility, after July 1, for state health insurance for part-time state employees.”

The budget also proposes so-called “flexibility” for the state to offer current workers a more limited defined-contribution retirement health plan, instead of the traditional, typically more stable, defined-benefit scheme. The state may also seek authority to tweak the healthcare subsidy formulas for active employees.

The United Campus Workers-Communications Workers of America Local 3865 union (UCW) is galled that the cutbacks have been proposed amid the governor’s boasts of making higher education affordable for all. Will their kids get free tuition while parents pay more for basic healthcare? Doubling the irony is that the target population of the new expansion of Tennessee Promise—the new funds are aimed at adult learners with a few college credits already—are perhaps the type of folks who might work a campus custodial job and take classes on the side at night: will they see the new tuition boost offset by shrinking benefits, or have to forgo community college courses to take on a second job?

The students campaigning in solidarity with the UCW recognize the fact that the tuition break is just one piece of the promise—one that the state seems to have bargained for on the backs of public servants. Student organizer Lindsey Smith tells The Nation via e-mail:

we are struggling to understand how Gov. Haslam can put money into such a plan, but completely ignore the campus workers’ pleas for better working conditions and higher wages. His plan is to supposedly help traditionally marginalized, working class students to get a higher education degree…but what happens to those students when they graduate? Not to mention, what about the people that are already in the workforce?

There are plenty of caveats with Haslam’s college-for-all initiative as well: the tuition-free plan actually excludes students who don’t meet certain academic standards and ultimately doesn’t subsidize the poor that much, since it covers only tuition (a relatively small portion of total college costs, which was actually already covered by federal Pell Grants for the typical lowest-income students).

And workers as well as faculty are raising questions as well about how the free-college plan will be funded, because the tuition break has not been complemented by a comparable boost in compensation for those teaching and serving the expanded student body. The UCW stated in its response to the budget announcement: “Sweeping public policy initiatives require a strong commitment to public financing. Governor Haslam’s higher education initiatives have included zero funding other than to offset student costs.”

The Governor’s Office says it plans to boost the operating budget so any new influx of students will be fully accommodated. Still, campus activists argue the system needs to make up for years of massive disinvestment, for both support staff and faculty

UT students also worry that while community college students get a break, those attending costlier four-year institutions (not included in the Tennessee Promise initiative) might see their costs rise, given the history of eroding higher education budgets: according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Tennessee cut higher education spending per student by nearly 22 percent between fiscal years 2008 and 2014, while average tuition at four-year public colleges has jumped by about $2000.

And with the overarching trend toward faculties becoming increasingly dependent on precarious adjunct professors, Tennessee’s academic workers echo a nationwide call for fair pay and labor protections for all instructors.

Gabriel Crowell, who has for years taught multiple history classes on various campuses but, like many of his colleagues, still struggles with a salary “in the mid-$20000 range,” told WBIR News: “If you really value higher education, that would show from top to bottom.”

The bottom might be about to slip further for academic labor: at the same time the Governor unveiled his budget, the UT Board of Trustees announced plans for cost-cutting through potential revision of tenure policies, along with what it calls “realignment and consolidation” of “low-performing programs.” While these plans have received less political fanfare than Haslam’s celebrated zero-tuition plan, the trend of undermining job security for academics and downsizing programs on the basis of “performance” suggests that the expansion in college “access” doesn’t necessarily mean expanding what schools offer.

UCW President Tom Anderson sounded a warning in response to the governor’s skewed fiscal priorities for higher ed:

With the current trend, we can expect continuing poverty wages and an increase in temporary, benefit-free jobs such as adjuncts and outsourced custodians and other support staff. … Our state needs living-wage jobs, high-quality public education, affordable health care and respect for our democratic rights to vote, organize and exercise our constitutional freedoms. Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.

Tennessee hopes that cutting tuition for college students will bring long-term prosperity to the state. Despite admirable intentions, however, this meritocratic vision might blot out other economic realities if the workers responsible for carrying out the Tennessee Promise get hit with a raw deal.


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