In February 2007, the University of Chicago announced a new program that promised to transform the lives of its graduate students. Beginning the following fall, almost every entering grad in the humanities and social sciences divisions would receive an annual stipend of $19,000 for five years, along with free tuition, guaranteed teaching opportunities, and other benefits. The $50 million program looked downright princely, until it became evident that none of the university’s 800 or so current grad students in those disciplines would be included.

The students began a series of polite protests (at their most riled, they marched into the provost’s office and deposited 150 apples on his desk), and last May the administration convened a working group of faculty and students to consider whether they might share in the bounty. The group’s report, issued in February, determined that very little could be done because including current grad students would cost roughly an additional $57 million.

But one of those students, political science major Daragh Grant, realized while perusing the report that a flaw in its assumptions had resulted in a significant overstatement of the cost. The flaw: certain grad students were added into the total at the full tuition rate of $37,000, when they actually pay only a fraction of that amount. This inflated the projected expense of the free tuition benefit by about $24 million.

University administrators admitted the error but said it wouldn’t substantially change their position. U. of C. grad students are organizing. According to protest leader Duff Morton, they’ll meet on May 2 to set up an Internet-based alliance designed to sidestep National Labor Relations Board rules that ban teaching assistants from unionizing.

In the 14 months they’ve been grappling with the university’s plan, Morton says, the students have come to realize that the most important issue isn’t stipends but pay for teaching, which the new funding package doesn’t address at all. “What we found is that across the board, pay for untenured teachers at the University of Chicago is low,” Morton says. .

Research issued by the university tends to bear this out. At the request of the students, the working group surveyed teaching-assistant pay at other universities in Chicago and at peer institutions around the country (such as Harvard and Yale). The University of Chicago’s rates fell “at the very bottom,” they wrote, and “appear to be less than half the very lowest level of remuneration of our peers.” Average compensation for an 11-week course at the other schools is about $5,870 while a comparable stint at the U. ofC. yields $1,500 to $3,500. The U. of C. pay scale, they noted, hasn’t changed in eight years. (The university’s making noises about rectifying the situation. In an interview published April 17 with the University of Chicago Chronicle, deputy provost for graduate education Cathy Cohen said, “Our goal is to make recommendations to the provost and the president regarding possible adjustments to teaching compensation” for fall 2008.)

Meanwhile, Morton says (and the university essentially confirms), graduate students are responsible for about a third of the U. of C. undergraduate core curriculum teaching load, while another third is handled by temporary, untenured fellows.The university “claims that its prestigious undergraduate core curriculum is taught entirely by faculty,” he says, but in fact highly paid, tenured professors have relatively little face time with students.

“What we really care about is how we’re treated as teachers and workers on this campus,” Morton says. “Both old and new students are being screwed by the university’s failure to compensate our teaching adequately.” And he argues that the long-term impact will be even worse. “All of us are here because we want to be working as tenure track faculty. And when our labor is used as a cheap replacement for tenure track faculty, we prop up a situation that’s going to prevent us from getting those jobs. It’s especially ironic because it’s happening at a time when college tuition is increasing at a pace that far outstrips inflation.”

Labor educator and advocate Joe Berry, currently in an untenured visiting position with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says tenure track jobs are already scarce and getting scarcer. The days when “full-time” was synonymous with tenure and the tenure track are history. While they were once the norm at universities, “the tenured people are now the privileged minority,” he says. Berry estimates that 65 to 80 percent of those teaching postsecondary classes today are untenured or “contingent” employees, and claims that the majority of those landing full-time jobs now are also being hired “off the tenure track.”

Meanwhile, he says, some community colleges now operate without any full-time, tenure-track faculty at all: “The only full-time people are administrators supervising part-timers.” And this could be the wave of the future. “There’s a movement under way to get rid of tenure altogether,” Berry warns. “To put everybody on contracts.”

Welcome to the university as corporation. In this business-model scenario, where some university heads are calling themselves CEOs, graduate students are more than ever an exploitable source of cheap labor, and most PhDs are doomed to a lifetime of multiple, low-paying, part-time jobs. Berry says the consequences for the institutions, students, and learning are severe: “Teachers don’t have time to keep office hours. They have to teach way too many classes to make a living. They don’t know till the last minute what classes they’re going to teach, so they can’t do the advance prep they should. Even if they’re the best teachers in the world, they’re working under conditions that don’t allow them to do their best work.”

Berry says declining government support and increased spending on things like technology have pushed tuition up, while changes in the student body (more older, returning students) have made it harder to predict enrollments. In these circumstances, a contingent faculty makes ecomonic sense: it’s cheap and flexible. But “their money saving is our absence of a living wage, and their flexibility is our insecurity,” he adds. Colleges trying to do more with less are “the educational equivalent of running an assembly line faster.” College teaching, says Berry, has become “a working-class job.”

Columbia College, which was built on the use of adjunct faculty and saw unionization of its part-time faculty a decade ago, is sponsoring a panel discussion on academic labor issues. Berry will participate, as will Columbia part-time faculty member Janina Ciezadlo, who says she proposed the panel because “it’s a matter of quality for the students. They don’t want someone who’s running from one school to another, teaching eight courses a semester. And we shouldn’t be forced into a pace that leaves no time for art or research. Columbia has an initiative to study poverty and privilege. I thought they need to study this new class of people created by academic institutions and living from hand to mouth.”

The wages of Columbia’s part-time teaching staff have tripled since they joined the union—but Ciezadlo, who’s been teaching for 15 years, says she’ll earn $28,000 this year. “My question is, how come I’m still making an entry-level salary?” v