Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Will there be women among the faculty of 2029?

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

Yes, women will be among the faculty of 2029--but the question is really which faculty, and what will their labor look like?

Last week, The Chronicle of Higher Education asked several college and university faculty and administrators to prognosticate about the shape of higher education institutions and their faculties 20 years from now. The answers varied, and depending on each writer's perspective, were hopeful or dystopian.

Evelyn Hu-Dehart, professor of history and ethnic studies at Brown University and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, writes about a future hierarchy of universities (though to me it seemed more like the present) in which there are a few elite institutions where faculty can undertake research and enjoy all the privileges granted to full professors today. These elite institutions will express diversity of gender, but in order to attract people of color, they will look overseas, to African, West Indian, Latin American, and Asian scholars. There will be some semblance of faculty governance at these universities. This will not be the case for non-elite colleges and universities, she writes:

At the deep base of the pyramid are the majority of postsecondary institutions, most of them public and minimally selective. They are the myriad of community colleges and many state colleges; together they enroll the vast majority of students pursuing postsecondary education. Their mission is to teach and credential students — many of them people of color, low-income, first-generation, nontraditional — for a fast-changing global economy. Only a small proportion of the faculty is full time and tenured. Most are contract employees — casual academic workers who constitute a flexible labor pool whose members can be easily laid off, recalled, or replaced as state budgets dictate. They deliver courses as much online as in a traditional classroom.

These lower-tier institutions attract few private donors and practically no research grants. Faculty governance is not even remotely part of the academic culture. But diversity is visible and meaningful here, for these institutions do provide opportunities for American minority-group members to pursue an academic career in teaching or administration.

Cathy Ann Trower, research director at the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (Coache) at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, imagines what lies at the end of two very different paths:

One is the path of least resistance — maintaining the status quo. If we do not reimagine the academic workplace and change the supporting culture, practices, and policies accordingly, one possibility is that it will look much like it does today, but with still fewer tenured and tenure-track faculty. If current trends continue (from a third of the professoriate tenured in 1997 to one-fourth in 2007), or slow slightly, it is likely that only around 20 percent of all instructional staff will be tenured or on the tenure-track. Faculty members then will be less satisfied than today because they will have had to assimilate and compromise their generation's values (collaboration, transparency, community, flexibility, diversity, interdisciplinarity, work-life integration) to fit into the mold created and institutionalized many years ago by "traditionalists" (competition, secrecy, autonomy, uniformity, homogeneity, disciplinary silos, 24/7 careers). We are, in 2009, seeing signs of decline as doctoral students vote with their feet — heading to the private sector, the government, or other nonprofits. A recent study of over 8,000 doctoral students in the University of California system showed that upon beginning their studies, 45 percent of men and 39 percent of women wanted to pursue careers as professors with an emphasis on research, but those percentages dropped to 36 percent and 27 percent respectively as time progressed. In the sciences, the shift was more dramatic. Why? For both men and women, a major factor was the perceived inflexibility of an academic career at a research university; and for women, being unable to reconcile family life with career pressures in this environment.

The other path, Trower writes, takes into better account the values and social, economic, and demographic paradigms of the 21st century. This path takes us to a place where faculty and students will reap the rewards of a reconfigured system that is shaped less like a tenure-track ladder and more like "lattices that allow movement in many directions" toward teaching and research.

While Hu-Dehart and Trower do offer some hope of renewed vision and vitality in some U.S. universities, most of the visions of the future are grim. Writes Michelle at the blog Getting By,

It's telling that the only positive view of the academy 20 years from now comes from an administrator, not faculty.

Issues of gender did arise in The Chronicle's thought-pieces, but not enough that I was satisfied, so I've been thinking about what the place of women likely will be in these institutions.

As I look toward the future, the historian in me can't help but cast a discerning glance backward as well. I'm technically a historian of museums, which were research institutions long before they embraced public education. In the late 19th and early 20th century U.S., universities usurped museums as the country's premier research institutions, which left some space for women to join museum staffs as scientists in positions of some note; they tended collections of pressed plants, stuffed skins, and animals preserved in formaldehyde and alcohol. (This transition was helped along considerably by the promotion of microscopy and the molecular sciences in universities; museums' collections lent themselves to macro-, rather than micro-, biology) When ecology came into being as a serious science in the second half of the 20th century, museums' collections once again became valuable as repositories of disappearing species and DNA samples. As a class, women scientists were pushed back out--or into educator or administrative positions--by men interested in working with these collections.

I'm wondering if we're going to see a similar stratification of women into teaching positions and men into research. I'm hoping we don't, as professors at top research universities tend to earn far more than their colleagues at teaching-focused institutions like community colleges and state universities.

The only pressure on women won't come from within the universities, however. As Judith Warner points out, distorted social norms are making life increasingly difficult for university women:

This simmering resentment is common and pervasive in our culture right now. The idea that women with a “major education” think they’re better than everyone else, have a great sense of entitlement, feel they deserve special treatment, and are too out of touch with the lives of “normal” women to have a legitimate point of view, is a 21st-century version of the long-held belief that education makes women uppity and leads them to forget their rightful place. It’s precisely the kind of thinking that has fueled Sarah Palin’s unlikely — and continued — ability to pass herself off as the consummately “real” American woman. (And it is what has made it possible for her supporters to discredit other women’s criticism of her as elitist cat fighting.)

The idea that these women really should “be quiet” comes through loud and clear every time. Men, you may or may not have noticed, are virtually never accused of “whining” when they talk or speak out about their lives. When well-educated, affluent men write about other well-educated, affluent men — and isn’t that what most political reporting and commentary is? — they are never said to be limited by the “narrowness” of their scope and experience. Well-educated fathers are not perceived as less real, authentic or decent than less-educated fathers. Even professor-dads, as far as I can tell, don’t have to labor to prove that they’re human.

Dr. Isis suggests it's past time for women to talk openly (and colorfully) about these issues of equity in the workplace, lest we end up in one of those stratified futures

these repeated discussions on how to keep the discourse civil, discussions in which women cannot participate with equity, are ridiculous. It's easy to consider a civil discourse when you've never had your ass grabbed by a colleague, been called "young lady" in front of your peers, or been asked about your reproductive plans. It's easy to ask the participants to be calm, and minimize profanity, when you don't have to keep in the back of you mind which which men to avoid at a meeting when they've been drinking.

There are signs that some grad students are willing to just walk out on careers in academe because of its culture. Audrey Williams June reports that these newly minted Ph.Ds don't consider universities to be family-friendly workplaces. And Sabine Hikel offers veterans of graduate school a glimpse of alternate careers at her blog Leaving Academia. Plus, the WRK4US listserv, which offers a safe place for those with graduate degrees, but particularly Ph.D.s, to discuss careers outside academia.

What do you think? Is it time for faculty and grad students to abandon ship, or is there real hope for reform of American higher education?

No comments: