The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love

What is it about the profession of teaching that we, as a society, just don’t respect?

Specifically, what is it about teachers at PSU that legislators and the Oregon Board of Higher Education seem intent on collectively disrespecting?

If you’re a regular reader of the Vanguard, or if you picked up the right issue of the Willamette Week or Oregonian in the past month and a half, no doubt you’ve seen something written about the plight of PSU teachers to get paid a fair and decent wage.

I’ll start with the facts. Teacher compensation is based on enrollment figures. Which enrollment figures to use in determining teacher salaries is a decision left up to Oregon legislators, and their most recent decision was to continue basing salary decisions on enrollment figures from two years ago, a decision the Oregon Board of Higher Education did not oppose. This decision just happens to favor the smaller Oregon University System schools that have not experienced enrollment growth over the past two years. In other words, every university in Oregon except PSU.

Now, anyone who is familiar with higher education in Oregon knows that PSU is unofficially the red-headed stepchild of Oregon universities, working its way up from an extension center to a college and finally to a four-year, degree-granting institution, buying up city property and buildings and fighting for funding every step of the way. We understand that the Higher Ed Board and the legislators don’t like us very much. But this latest issue is a little ridiculous. Come on, PSU professors’ salaries are already in the lowest 10 percent among national averages, and they still won’t budge? That’s just silly.

Naturally, the state board and the legislature are perfectly aware of what they are doing in using old enrollment figures to allocate salary money disproportionately to the smaller schools. The decision was made not to fund growth, but instead to fund shrinkage. George Pernsteiner, chancellor of the Oregon University System, was quoted in an Oregonian article as saying that funding was a “zero sum game” and that providing resources to one campus would mean “taking them away from the others, and we were not in a position to recommend that.”

So perhaps Oregon legislators and the board of education are using the moral doctrine of utilitarianism; that is, the greatest good for the greatest number. They are making decisions that will help four schools financially, rather than allocating the funds necessary to one school to allow the wages at that one school to keep pace with national averages and the rising cost of living.

But wait. Portland State is home to some 25,000 students, while the other four schools in question have a total combined enrollment of 17,000 students. So, if you make the assumption that more fairly-remunerated faculty will produce better educational outcomes and therefore improve students’ end quality and capabilities, that idea falls flat on its face.

All this leaves me somewhat mystified as to the state’s logic, and the board’s logic in following their directives so unquestioningly. Certainly, where higher education is concerned, both bodies have the best interests of the education system as a whole at heart; and, certainly, they realize that the educational system is merely a structure designed to produce the highest quality outcomes for individual students?

Oh I’m sorry, is my naivete showing?

Let me balance it with a personal connection. As a student of the business school, a former and current employee of several large and small businesses, and an individual intimately acquainted with corporate exploitation, I personally would not stand for the treatment that over 1,000 faculty members are receiving right now. I would feel cheated and exploited, and as a working professional, I would walk off the job in something approaching sickened rage. I might even sue. And given my perspective, I’d recommend that the American Association of University Professors institute a strike. Hell, I might even strike with them.

Overreaction? Perhaps. But some background will make my position more rational.

I am 22 and an undergraduate student working toward my bachelor’s degree. I work as a peer mentor, an assistant for Mentor Development and Training, and I contribute to the Vanguard. I have two other part-time jobs on the side. I work maybe 40 hours a week, all told. Based on everything I do, I managed to produce for myself, as a yearly gross, barely $500 less than what some of my professors are making.

That’s shocking. When a professor with a master of arts, who is pursuing a doctorate in her field, and with eight years of university-level teaching experience under her belt, is being paid so little that a 22-year-old undergraduate can equal or surpass her yearly gross, you know something is wrong with our higher ed system, with our budget allocation system, with our society.

Do we view education as so unimportant? Do we, as a society, really feel this is fair remuneration? Is the cultivation of informed and educated citizens and consumers so cheap to us that we pay our teaching professionals less than minimum wage? Current evidence points to an answer of yes and that answer devalues us all.