As a person who works at a small, Catholic liberal arts university that has a mission to serve underprivileged students, I am often intrigued by the manner in which discussions about the educational rights of the underprivileged weave their way through the academy. I’m interested precisely because it seems that almost every scholar I know can talk about how enraged they are about the barriers that exist for underprivileged students, but few seem to openly connect this to the fact that the ways we are groomed to think about our own jobs simply reproduce these very same inequities.
For instance, consider this recent article from Inside Higher Ed, which asks whether top-tier universities (which spend very large amounts of money on their students compared to their less wealthy counterparts) should receive the public funding that they currently do. The author argues that since more cash-strapped institutions are usually the ones to educate poorer students (and more wealthy institutions actually admit far fewer students with financial need), it may make more sense for public funding to be diverted away from wealthy institutions that are underwritten by substantial endowments and a financially healthy alumni base and towards their less fiscally robust counterparts.
But my interest in the article lies more in its brief discussion of faculty salaries. It’s no surprise that wealthier, more prestigious institutions pay their faculty more. But in addition to money, it is relatively common knowledge in the academy that the more wealthy the university, the more research time faculty receive and the less teaching they are required to do. While there are exceptions, this is a relationship that is generally so predictable that virtually all professors are well-acquainted with the difference between a “teaching school” and a “research school.” As far as prestige goes, the latter is almost always portrayed as a more desirable job, this despite the fact that openings at such institutions are relatively rare and constitute a mere fraction of the total number of available positions in an already strangling market.
As scholars, we rarely discuss the power dynamics at work in this assessment of the research school as the more desirable employer; instead, we talk about the reasonable expectation of fair pay for our expertise and our desire to have our research valued — both important points. But what often goes unspoken is the fact that it’s harder to teach underprivileged students, and one is generally paid less to teach them, an important subtext to the multitude of conversations that circulate about educational equity. In crafting our own identities, then, scholars are just like everyone else: we’re inconsistent and fairly privilege driven.
Rather than see this as a moral indictment, though, it’s important to acknowledge that these are the messy politics of identity, which have a strange way of up-ending even those things that seem simple and straightforward. In this case, I think of my friend and colleague Craig Martin, who has argued that one critical function of the university as of late has been to reproduce class differences (and thus capitalist power structures); this is true in the sense that the university both furthers the privilege of the wealthier people it tends to serve at the same time that it prepares and trains workers (i.e., students) primarily for capitalist endeavors. If this is, indeed, one of the roles of the university today, need we be surprised that we, professors, are a part of it?
photo credit: oxbridgesays.com