Students First: An Open Letter to University of Kentucky Men’s Basketball Head Coach John Calipari

Dear Coach Calipari,

My name is Andy Berger, and I am a first-year writing instructor. I was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky. My father was an economics professor at the University of Kentucky. My ties to Kentucky, the school and the state, run deep. I bleed blue, and I’m a diehard Cats fan.

Growing up, my dad took me to several UK men’s basketball games at Rupp Arena. We had the privilege of seeing some truly fantastic talent lace up for the Cats; however, as you well know, the men’s basketball program eventually entered some times that appear dark in a tradition that, historically, shines so bright. Fortunately, you soon came along and, through your unique and innovative Players First approach, helped bring pride back to the Bluegrass.

A National Championship, four Final Fours in five seasons, and 19 players placed in the NBA (presumably with seven more on the way) are accomplishments worth celebrating. Your recent $8 million, one-year contract extension that will keep you at UK through the spring of 2022 is certainly merited. Unlike some folks out there, I do not believe that coaches who earn high salaries do so to the overall detriment of the institutions of higher learning at which they coach. I believe athletics and academics can coexist.

Here at Georgia Southern, where I currently teach, President Brooks A. Keel likes to say athletics are the university’s front porch. He believes athletics get students excited about Georgia Southern. Once they’re on the porch, they’ll peer in the front windows and see all the other wonderful things our school has to offer. I think it’s a fitting metaphor, and one that also applies to Kentucky’s state schools.

The state schools in Kentucky all have fine front porches, but what concerns me is that when students get up on those porches, they’re not always going to like what they see through the front windows. Specifically, I’m disquieted by the ways in which some universities in Kentucky treat their faculties.

In Kentucky, and nationally, universities are increasingly relying on adjunct and contingent faculty to teach courses. Adjunct and contingent faculty typically sign semester-long contracts on a semester-by-semester basis and, therefore, do not enjoy the same job security as their tenure-track and tenured colleagues. The American Association of University Professors reports that the percentage of non-tenure-line faculty on US campuses rose from 43% in 1975 to 70% in 2011.

Imagine if 70% of NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball coaches didn’t know for certain in November if they’d still be around to guide their players through the madness of March. A program that can’t commit to a coach for longer than a half-season isn’t putting its players first. If anything, that program is putting its players last by casting them into a chaotic, uncertain future. While we can be thankful no such program exists, we should also note that universities across Kentucky are operating under that exact paradigm in terms of how they treat their faculty. Just as it would be the players who would suffer in a program that couldn’t commit to a coach, it’s the students who suffer from a university’s reliance on adjunct and contingent faculty. How exactly are we to expect a professor to be Students First in the fall semester if she doesn’t even know if she’ll be invited back to teach in the spring semester? Realistically, I don’t believe we can.

Unfortunately, a lack of job security is not the only way in which adjunct and contingent faculty are mistreated; they are also often paid very poorly and receive no benefits. The Adjunct Project reports the median pay for adjunct and contingent faculty in Kentucky as $2,700 per class. At $2,700 per class, teaching three classes per semester in the fall and spring semesters and one class over the shorter summer semester would net a faculty-member a whopping $18,900 per year before taxes.

Before I found more stable work at Georgia Southern, I was an adjunct English and Humanities instructor in Kentucky at Eastern Kentucky University and Bluegrass Community and Technical College. I would string together as many classes as I could to try and make ends meet. I never once received benefits of any kind from either institution. In the three years I worked as an adjunct instructor in Kentucky, my best financial year was 2012. I made a touch over $36,000 that year. Of course, 2012 was also the high water mark for the number of courses I would teach in a year: 16 to be exact. Most tenure-track and tenured faculty consider seven courses in a year a heavy teaching load.

Imagine if UK told you that in order to make a halfway livable wage, you had to coach the men’s and women’s basketball teams and an AAU team over the summer. Imagine if they didn’t provide you with an excellent health insurance plan, so the next time you had a cavity, you had to pay out of your own pocket to have it filled. These hypothetical scenarios would cut down on the amount of time you have to engage with current and prospective players and push you away from your Players First approach. Again, while we can rejoice that these aren’t real scenarios, they are analogous to the reality students and faculty in Kentucky’s institutions of higher learning face.

Now, I’m not complaining. I love teaching. Just as I’m sure you would find a way to coach regardless of the circumstances in which you find yourself, I will find a way to teach regardless of the circumstances in which I find myself. Every school in America could stop paying teachers tomorrow, and I would find a way to volunteer as a teacher at night after I got off work. I just couldn’t possibly give up the exhilarating feeling of providing students, not only with tools to write, read, and communicate more effectively, but the tools to think more critically, to engage with their communities more compassionately, and to envision a better and brighter future. The students are why I teach. Just like you’re Players First, I’m Students First.

I believe that as the highest paid public employee and the most prominent public figure in Kentucky, you have the power, the platform, and the responsibility to advocate for a Students First approach across the Commonwealth. After this summer, you will have placed over 20 Kentucky players in the NBA; however, your players who don’t end up playing professionally need guidance beyond what you can offer them. Those players deserve a Students First education. All students deserve a Students First education.

By speaking out against universities’ reliance on adjunct and contingent faculty, you will help ensure that your players and all students receive the Students First education they deserve.

Sincerely,

Andy Berger

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