Teaching for Free

U. of California at Davis asks faculty to forfeit stipends they get for leading freshman seminars, generating some givebacks and some resentment.
November 10, 2009

Employees at the University of California at Davis have been hit hard by the economy. They’ve been forced to take unpaid furloughs, give up research funding and watch as a much-envied state system is de-funded and deteriorates.

Faced with a 20 percent budget cut for the division she oversees, Patricia Turner, vice provost for undergraduate studies, is calling on them to sacrifice yet again, writing to dozens of faculty and lecturers late last month and asking them to forgo part or all of the research stipends they earn for teaching freshman seminars.

In previous years, some seminar instructors had voluntarily given up the stipends and asked that they be reinvested in the program. Turner and Winder McConnell, director of the Teaching Resources Center, which oversees the seminar program, hoped others would do the same if given the chance. “We’re looking under every rock for resources,” Turner said in an interview. “Given these times, I needed to at least ask the question.”

The answers, though, have ranged from begrudging to angry, as Davis faculty and observers consider the possibility of giving up $1,500 to $2,000 designated to be used for research or travel, expenses already cut to oblivion in most academic departments.

Amy Clarke, a writing lecturer with a forthcoming book about the Twilight fantasy series, is teaching a seminar on the books this fall. She is not giving back the $1,500 stipend to which she is entitled. “This was an agreed upon amount,” she said, “and I have already earmarked the money for research.”

By teaching seminars without a stipend and as overload, she added, instructors “are most definitely doing this for free.… It is an add-on to their workload.” Some bloggers and commenters seem to agree.

Cristina Gonzalez, a Spanish professor, has volunteered to give up the stipend for the next seminar she teaches, conceding that she’s “volunteered to teach for free.” Seminars generally meet for 10 to 20 hours over the course of a 10-week quarter and, she said, the stipend “does not begin to compensate for the time and effort that it takes to teach these freshman seminars, so I think that most of us teach them out of a spirit of service.”

Even so, she added, “for some faculty members, these are the only research funds available.” Giving them up would leave them without the bit of cash they have to pay to attend conferences or subscribe to professional publications that are no longer funded by the university library.

Davis offers about 200 freshman seminars each year and could save at least $300,000 over the course of the next year, should all instructors decide to decline their stipends. Though the stipends are “relatively small expenditures” in the scheme of the Davis budget, Turner said she sought them out in her pursuit to “find any source of revenue that can be useful to me in meeting the budget targets.”

More than two dozen instructors have responded to her with e-mail messages committing to give up all, some or none of their stipends. “Nobody’s happy about it,” she said, “but they still say they want to help. The basic tenor is, ‘It’s lousy that it’s come to this, I can’t do it this quarter but I can next quarter’ or ‘I wish I could participate but I really need this money for my work.’ ”

Jon Rossini, an associate professor of theater and dance, falls into the latter category. Though he’s not teaching a seminar this semester, he often teaches a course on the cultural politics of the cartoon series “South Park” in part for the chance to interact with students in a field outside his own, but also “for the research support.” Without some sort of stipend, he said, he would be “unlikely” to teach another seminar. The money covers his travel expenses for a few conferences each year.

One faculty member who's agreed to give up his stipend this fall is Subhash Risbud, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science, who said he won't do so again when he teaches a seminar next spring. He sees the giveback as “a short-term, Band-Aid solution” he’s willing to be a part of, but won’t allow to become the norm.

“By giving up my stipend now, I hope I’ll be part of making it possible for more students to take these seminars in the longer term,” he said. “But this is not something that should be continuously done on a constant basis.”


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