Livesay promises reform to frustrated teaching assistants


Wichita State Graduate School Dean Dennis Livesay responded to criticism about graduate teaching assistants’ working conditions and low compensation last week.

Livesay’s reforms include using funds formerly allocated for health care subsidies to increase teaching assistants’ stipends in departments that receive the lowest compensation.

Many teaching assistants, primarily in the English department, receive wages well below the poverty line for the school year, and many reported to The Sunflower that they work beyond the maximum 20 hours a week while grading papers and lesson planning for the classes they teach without receiving extra compensation.

Under the current policies, graduate teaching assistants are not allowed to work outside of the university without permission from the graduate school. The university limits their work to 20 hours a week.

Livesay plans to phase out the stipulation graduate teaching assistants cannot work elsewhere.

“The requirement was for the benefit of the students,” Livesay said. “When they’re employed with us, we limited them at 20 hours and one job to be certain that their employment didn’t leave them overworked, negatively affecting their classswork. It was poorly enforced, and it’s in the final stages of being phased out.”

Graduate teaching assistants typically take nine credit hours and teach two classes a semester. Many told The Sunflower they work outside jobs to earn enough money to eat.

“Suggesting we keep our hours in our job under 20 and then have ample time to study but also pick up another job to support ourselves isn’t a solution,” said Kayla Haas, a teaching assistant in the English department. “Those seem to be at odds with each other. There are only two solutions to this problem — less work or higher pay.”

English graduate teaching assistants earn $8,500 a year. From that, they must pay student fees totaling nearly $1,000 a semester, buy textbooks and pay for their other living expenses — including rent. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, graduate teaching assistants earn full-time equivalent pay of nearly $31,000 a year. Livesay says that number reflects a 40-hour equivalent adjusted earnings salary.

“The real national average is about $16,000 for the 20-hour work week that we scale our students to,” Livesay said. “While we’re well below this in English at $8,500, in the engineering department, students receive about $18,000.”

Besides earning more than double what a graduate teaching assistant in the English department makes for the standard school year, engineering teaching assistants can work 40-hour equivalents during the summer time, receiving pay for twice the hours they work, something unavailable to teaching assistants in other departments.

“I’m committed to bringing stipends up,” Livesay said. “The compensation levels we’re seeing in English are too low and I agree.”

Livesay outlined his “graduate enrollment management plan,” which he said will be implemented by fall 2017.

One of its provisions ensures GTAs know whether or not they receive assistantships before semester classes start. They do not know now.

Livesay has held the WSU dean position for about six months after coming from South Carolina.

“These things weren’t being looked into before I arrived here,” Livesay said.

Until this year, Academic Affairs has had authority over graduate teaching assistants’ compensation.

The university will subsidize 75 percent of the health care costs for teaching assistants who choose to purchase the school’s insurance plan until December. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) no longer allows the subsidy.

“The ACA caught everyone off guard,” Livesay said. “The bill states that we must stop subsidizing student health care or receive a fine of $100 a day per student.”

He estimated the cost to be $1 million a day at WSU.

“With (the graduate enrollment management plan), we’re going to try and take the money previously used to subsidize health care and distribute it amongst the (teaching assistants) receiving the lowest pay levels at the university,” Livesay said. “Previously about 55 percent of students used the plan.

“We could give everyone a raise of about $555 with that money, but that isn’t much. Instead, we’re giving raises to the lowest paid assistantships.”

The Affordable Care Act defines full-time employees as those who work 30 hours a week or more and mandates providing full health insurance coverage.

“The university has the option to cover health insurance and not break the law under the ACA,” Haas said. “The money that we receive will be then used instead by students who are over 26 and not on their parent’s insurance to now pay for health care costs.”

Many universities do not consider graduate teaching assistants employees of the university, excluding them from typical employee benefits. A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling defined graduate assistants at private universities as employees who can unionize.

“While the students here can’t unionize, we’ve seen in the past a ‘graduate assistant association’ at WSU, although this hasn’t existed for a few years. This helps give graduate assistants a voice at the university, and we’re actively encouraging feedback from students. I hope students will come to see me to let me know what’s going on. If I know what grievances a student has, I can take corrective action for the betterment of the student,” Livesay said.

“This is a conversation that’s been going on for a several years,” Haas said. “If the university can’t function without (graduate teaching assistants), they should be employees.

“If we get taxed by the IRS and they think we’re employees, the university should too.”

Livesay encouraged teaching assistants to form an association, although he distinguished this clearly from a union.

“It’s confusing,” Livesay said. “Graduate assistants are neither fish nor foul. They are critical to the function of the university. Teaching assistants do work for the university, but they aren’t considered employees.”

Livesay said the primary focus of graduate teaching assistants should be their own classwork.


Livesay also highlighted other difficulties.

“We’re in the middle of a big budget crunch,” Livesay said. “If I have to raise wages for two assistants, a third may no longer have a job. Things are not perfect.”

Haas encourages plans to be published and shared with graduate teaching assistants.

“We need to be a part of this conversation if there is going to be significant change,” Haas said. “As a GTA, it’s a problem if I’m not aware of plans that could change my future.”