Behind the Headlines

  • Inequality in Academia

    October 4, 2010
    written by

    In response to:

    "Colleges' inequality within"
    The Philadelphia InquirerSeptember 30, 2010

    I was skimming the op-ed section of last week’s Philadelphia Inquirer (my hometown paper), and I ran across a piece by Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history at New York University, entitled “Colleges’ inequality within.” As an interested observer of academia here at ISI, I was naturally intrigued, so I started reading the opening paragraph, which began, “I’m a member of an overwhelmingly liberal profession . . .” Finally, I murmured under my breath, a college professor admitting in public what has come to be an obvious fact—How refreshing!(ISI’s most recent civic literacy study corroborates Dr. Zimmerman’s assessment, but goes further to examine the impact of liberal academia on public opinion—check it out here.)

    Zimmerman’s main point was not a mea culpa for the liberal academy, but rather an indictment of his liberal colleagues for not putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to the salary/benefits inequalities that exist between the small number of tenured faculty and the over 70 percent of “contingent” employees (i.e. graduate assistants, adjuncts, visiting professors, and the like) who do the bulk of the teaching on a typical college campus. Zimmerman was especially critical of a practice referred to as “poaching,” where elite schools like NYU steal away all-star professors with ultra-high salaries from other schools, thereby leaving NYU having to pay essentially below-minimum wage salaries to the rest of their teaching faculty. In a way, you could call it the “Steinbrenner” effect on academia.

    Now, as someone who continues to be a part of that “repressed” majority (I’m an adjunct politics professor at two local colleges here in the Philly suburbs), I’m glad that Dr. Zimmerman “feels my pain.” But I wonder if he would be willing to go a step further, by helping me and the rest of my right-of-center Ph.D. colleagues compete on an equal footing for the few tenure-track positions that are left in academia? For, to be honest, one of the main reasons I work here at ISI, beyond its great mission of educating for liberty, is that I was shut-out of the academic job market by a veritable brick wall erected by liberally-dominated search committees. It is this kind of ideological inequality that is at least as problematic as the labor economics of higher education is to the long-term health of the industry; but I would not hold my breath for Zimmerman and his ilk to address this particular form of inequality.

    But if he is, might I suggest he check out ISI’s Lehrman American Studies Center website, home of hundreds of young, energetic, and exceptional academics just dying to break into the collegiate teaching profession: http://lehrman.isi.org/.

    And beyond that, it is possible that the kind of economic trends that Zimmerman bemoans in academia could actually provide a more level-playing field for conservatives as institutions of higher learning explore innovations like pure “teaching” professorships (with fixed 3-5 year contracts), as well as the so-called “nuclear” option—the abolition of tenure itself (something that right-of-center academics might be lukewarm about, given their beleaguered minority status). We’ll have to see, but overall, my guess is that any change in the academic status quo is worth exploring if you’re a dispossessed, alienated, and unequal conservative Ph.D.

    The views and opinions expressed in Behind the Headlines content do not necessarily represent those of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

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