Amy Keesling’s Statement to Admin at Open Bargaining in Dearborn 3/09

Good afternoon.  My name is Amy Keesling; I am a doctoral student in the College of Education and a Lecturer in the College of Arts, Sciences and Languages.  I am honored to share my story with you today.  First, I want to say that I love the U of M.  I applied to the doctoral program here because, as our slogan so proudly states: we are the leaders and the best!  I was delighted to have an opportunity to teach here as well.  I love my professors and classmates in the College of Education, and I love my colleagues and students in CASL.  Indeed, I have never felt as welcomed and supported as I have felt here, both as a student and as a lecturer.

It is because I love and respect UM that I am speaking here today.

You have heard other testimony about the plight of the lecturer, and I am going to share mine as well.  A few years ago, I took an early retirement from teaching high school in the Detroit Public Schools.  I loved teaching in DPS, and I loved my students.  I fought the good fight for twenty years, despite the challenges of urban education.  When the state took over the district, things became even more challenging.  Allow me to elaborate:  a classroom with a ceiling that was falling on us, English classes of 55 and 62 students, no textbooks, and taking cover from active shooters.  I could go on and on citing some of the hardships of state-run urban education, but I do not want you to get the wrong idea because none of these things were factors in my decision to leave.  What led to my decision to leave was the state-run administration who gradually wore me down in an oppressive, punitive way.  When the state took over, our pay was routinely cut on average of $3,000 a year.  One year, we were forced to give the state a $10,000 loan that has yet to be repaid.  Conversely, while my pay was going down every year, my job intensified.  I felt like one of the Israelites in Egypt—we were asked to make more bricks with less straw every year.  Then, we were belittled, castigated and treated like imbeciles.  I think what solidified my decision to leave was a scathing comment my principal made during a staff meeting.  After hearing some of our concerns, she said, “I am not here for the comfort of adults.  I am here for the children, and you should be too. In fact, if you are not leaving this building every day completely exhausted from working so hard for the children, then you should not be here.”  I was mystified.  How did she expect us to have the energy to sustain that?  Did she not realize that an investment in us would strengthen us, so we would have more to give to the children?

I imagine you are wondering why I took the time to share this with you.  Unfortunately, there are many parallels between my plight at DPS and my plight as a lecturer.    When I took an early retirement from teaching high school, I was delighted to have the opportunity to remain in the classroom because I love teaching.  I knew that the pay was not great, but no one becomes an educator for the money!  Sadly, I learned that the pay is not just low, it is oppressive.  Moreover, the uncertainty of how much I will earn each semester is extremely stressful.

I teach in the Writing Program at Dearborn. As a Lecturer I, I cycle between having too little work in the winter, little to nothing in the summer, and too much work in the fall, so much so that I am physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted in December.  I am currently employed at three colleges to try to cobble together an income.  Allow me to share my Wednesday schedule from last fall with you.  I had two morning classes at EMU.  I got there at 8AM so I could provide some office hours for my students which was not very convenient for them, but the best I could do.  I left EMU to drive to UM Dearborn to have an afternoon class.  I would eat a lunch bar in the car on the way to have some energy for the afternoon.  After my afternoon class, I would drive home, grab a quick dinner, and then drive to the Northwest Campus of WCCCD to teach my evening class which ended at 9 PM.  I cannot tell you how many emails I received from students asking me if they could come see me in my office. I would have to tell them that I was already at a different college and would do my best to answer their question through email or a phone call.

This is such a disservice to our students!

I would like to return to my financial predicament.  Frankly, if I did not have a spouse who works in a field that compensates him fairly, I would have left higher education years ago simply because I would not be able to survive, let alone pay my student loans for the doctoral degree that I have not even finished here at UM.  My husband and I were working on our taxes last weekend.  To my dismay, my combined income from the three colleges, plus my freelance class I taught last spring and summer to minimize our debt, added up to such a small amount that I would qualify for low-income housing if I were to move to the City of Detroit.  This is shameful and insulting! To be completely candid with you, I secretly feel guilty for continuing to work as a lecturer each semester because I make so little money.  I love what I am doing, so I keep coming back each semester, but my family will not be able to sustain this much longer.  It is hard to justify going into debt every year just because I love my job.  Furthermore, it is demoralizing for me to know how little I am valued. 

I am speaking to you from my heart.  I respect this great university, and I respect my profession so much that I cannot stand by and be silent when I see an egregious injustice.  The venerable Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system” and, “The oppressed must never allow the conscience of the oppressor to slumber.”  The current trend in higher education to employ underpaid lecturers who have no guarantee of future employment is oppressive.  I understand that the exploitation of the worker is a global crisis, and that you are not responsible for that.  However, you are responsible for perpetuating that trend; you are responsible for how you treat us.  You have chosen to pay us at a significantly lower rate than other local institutions of higher learning, like Oakland University, Macomb Community College, and Mott Community College pay, even when you are sitting on a much larger pot of cash. You are choosing to hire fewer and fewer professors and fewer and fewer full-time lecturers.  The surplus of cash you are accumulating is not without a cost.  We, your employees, are suffering.  Soon, the University will suffer as well.  It is unconscionable and shameful for the UM to exploit its faculty.

I want to leave you with the one last thought.

The UMD asserts in its mission statement that, “We are committed to excellence in teaching, learning, research and scholarship”.  Hiring underpaid lecturers who must work multiple jobs to survive is not a recipe for excellence.

If you want to be the best, you need to attract the best.  The current system is making us exhausted and will force us to leave.  It is a recipe for mediocrity, not for being the leaders and the best!  The DPS leadership did not understand that the mental, financial, and physical health of its educators had a direct impact on the quality of education in its schools.  Do not make the same mistake they made.

In closing, I exhort you to treat the lecturers with the honor and respect we deserve. We, the University of Michigan, are the leaders and the best, so show us, and show the world, that you value your educators.