The Economic Inequality in Academia
In focusing on the wealthy as the singular source of economic inequality, progressive politics obscures the machineries of privilege which function at all levels of society. Individuals are trapped within these mechanisms; their lives lessened in ways that are far more damaging than the actions of the “one per cent.”
Economic hierarchies are maintained not by brute force, but by strategies which rationalize the privilege of a few and the struggle of many. Within a multitude of economic contexts, structures of inequality are arduously perpetuated, even by those who consistently profess a belief in economic justice. Progressives need to analyze these contradictions and to expose the strategies which are utilized to justify hierarchy.
Academia provides an excellent laboratory for this kind of analysis. Within academia, the contradictions between words and practices are particularly stark. Publicly, Professors often denounce the structures of privilege constructed by the top one per cent in this country. Privately, the small, tenured professorial class perpetuates a system through which it acquires disproportionate resources while condemning the majority of university faculty – non tenure-track adjuncts – to often live in near poverty.
While there are clear economic incentives for university administrators to pay the majority of adjuncts severely depressed wages,the financial disparity between tenured/tenure-track Professors and non tenure-track adjuncts (often denoted as Instructors or Lecturers) is not solely an effect of administrative policies. Administrators and the professorial class are complicit in the maintenance of this economic hierarchy and each provides a certain degree of cover for the other.
When pressed on the disparity between their words and their practices, tenured faculty can point to university administrators as the real culprits of adjunct impoverishment. In return, administrators’ harsh financial calculations are softened and obscured by professorial rationalizations which interpret structural hierarchy as merit-based.
The reinforcement of professorial class privilege begins with the hiring process for the few available tenure-track jobs. Excellence in teaching, without academic publications, will rarely qualify an applicant for a university level tenure-track position. Publishing without any evidence of teaching ability is far more acceptable. However, the current proliferation of graduate students with Ph.Ds., many with publications in top journals, has transformed the work of faculty hiring committees into something of a lottery.
Most Lecturers understand that “one’s position in the academic academy hierarchy is largely an accident of birth” and even some tenured faculty admit that their tenured colleagues “got lucky.” The result of this “luck of the draw” is financial security for the chosen few, and financial desperation for the non-tenure track adjuncts – a class that comprises almost seventy per cent of college and university faculties.
The primacy of publishing does not originate solely with the professorial class, but in its hands it has been re-purposed into a tool of class formation and preservation. Members of the faculty hiring committees evaluate new hires with the same criteria by which they were awarded their positions and which constitute their continued financial accumulation. This self-replication is then denoted as “merit;” a designation that separates new hires into two distinct groups while reassuring tenured faculty of their own superior worth.
Even though the hiring process is, at best, a conjecture, once the separation between tenure-track Professor and Lecturer has taken place, the newly hired are fully constructed to align with their new class status. Lecturers are often considered to be hourly employees and their salaries are contingent on the number of courses taught. This compels them to teach as many courses as possible, though the vast majority are limited by course availability to being part-time. Financial survival often remains elusive, and many adjuncts are forced to go on public assistance and food stamps.
Tenure-track Professors, however, are often given as minimal teaching loads as possible and are eligible for paid time off from teaching in order to further their research. This disproportionate allocation of resources is designed to move tenure-track Assistant Professors smoothly along the path to tenured Associate and Full Professor. Each new title brings with it an increase in financial reward. A tenured Professor who is teaching far fewer courses and has far fewer students than a Lecturer might still earn five times the salary.
There is no significant financial path upwards for Lecturers. According to a recent survey report by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) part-time faculty “experienced little in the way of a career ladder” measured as “higher wages after several years of work.” At the university level, continued excellence in teaching virtually never qualifies a Lecturer for a tenure-track position. But heavy teaching loads limit the ability of Lecturers to engage in the continued research and writing required for such positions. If a Lecturer takes time off for research, they receive no pay for that semester. The CAW notes that the professional commitment and support for part-time faculty is “dismal.”
However, simply increasing resources for Lecturers leaves the fundamental pivot point of the academic hierarchy untouched. The economic stratification within academia is built upon the disproportionate financial rewards given to those who publish articles or books in acceptable academic journals (or with acceptable publishers) over those who teach. Though this structure of incentives and rewards is universal within academia, the strongly disparate financial valuation given to publishing remains unquestioned.
In many of the more theoretical fields of academia, such as political theory, publications are highly self-referential. Observations and arguments are not derived from, nor are they intended to mirror, the complex, multi-faceted contemporary political world. Instead publications refer to other publications in debates about the field’s own abstract conceptual structures.
It is teachers dedicated to a challenging education who engage in the task of reworking and concretizing theories to make them relevant to students. It is in the classroom where the dialogue between theory and politics takes place; and it is the classroom which sends forth generations of students who can perceive, and possibly undermine, the rationalities of power.
Paths to knowledge are often forged through the interplay of publications and teaching. No objective standard of measurement exists to financially quantify, and differentiate, these approaches or their contributions. Yet a vast and enduring economic hierarchy has emerged grounded in the supposed intrinsic hierarchy between the two. This financial hierarchy is not a dispassionate reflection of an objective reality; it is a strategic effect of the mechanisms underlying class formation and preservation.
The primacy of publishing, and the attendant allocation of resources, is utilized not merely to perpetuate two different economic classes, but also to create two different kinds of people. This creation allows the hierarchy of privilege to function as though it represents objective value differences both in terms of the work produced and the individuals who produce it.
In any economic hierarchy, once those at the bottom are positioned as “lesser,” all sorts of harms become permissible. Since the financial disparities in academia do not mirror any objective universal value differences in work or aptitude, the hierarchy between adjuncts and Professors needs to be maintained and reinforced by persistent invocations of professorial privilege.
Even some tenured faculty are critical of the constant assertion of “prerogatives,” and the “arrogance, and fear of being lumped together with the Untouchable Other.” Tenured faculty become experts at delineating “who really counts as part of [the] professional community and who doesn’t.”
These protections of class difference require, and cultivate, a disdain for the processes of education, and construct teaching as a burden to be endured. The professorial class strategically utilizes this construction as though it represents an underlying reality – an exercise in class maintenance which punishes both adjuncts and students.
One of the few options currently available to adjuncts to improve their financial situation is a faculty union. But unions comprised of both tenured and adjunct faculty will never question the mechanisms which underlie the academic hierarchy. Instead, they will ask adjuncts to join in fights for general increases in faculty salaries which disproportionately benefit those who already earn the most. The trade-off for adjuncts is an incremental raise in pay in return for a reinforcement of the structures and relations which perpetuate their impoverishment.
The academic hierarchy will not be altered by resorting to arguments about fairness, equality or basic human decency. Unions composed solely of adjuncts must fight for far greater increases in adjunct salaries as part of a larger struggle to dismantle the entire professorial apparatus of privilege. All progressives should join in this effort.
The gap between professorial words and actions exemplify the kinds of rationalizations which perpetuate exploitation at all economic levels. The power of the most wealthy in this country will not be impeded if their strategies can be simultaneously decried and emulated. Progressive politics must expose and disrupt these processes, wherever they occur. In this sense, the professorial class should be appearing frequently on progressive media. They have a lot to explain.