The Lower Realities of Higher Education

What popular and conservative attacks of higher education often miss is that academia is incredibly traditional, especially in terms of policies and practices that are sexist, racist, classist, and (often) petty.

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

I posted a fairly tame Tweet about the Wall Street Journal‘s recent Op-Ed attacking Jill Biden using “Dr.” and editorial doubling-down on negative responses to the Op-Ed (none of which I will link here):

The Tweet attracted conservatives with ten’s of followers, most of them misreading the Tweet and many of them attacking me for being an academic/professor (the typical snarky references to Marx, etc.) as well as being in the field of education (my university affiliation and doctorate, an EdD, are part of my Twitter bio and handle — although several Twits thought they were outing me in some way for these public facts).

While I am enormously privileged, I share with Jill Biden the paradox of holding a doctorate in an often marginalized field, education; when I attained my EdD in the mid-1990s, it was still a much lesser degree than a PhD — and remains well down the hierarchy of academic credentials since education is often discounted as a pre-professional field.

Over 37 years as an educators, I spent the first 18 as a public high school English teacher. K-12 teachers are disproportionately women, and being a K-12 teacher is a profession rarely recognized as such — mostly, I contend, because it is perceived as mere women’s work.

Like babysitting.

Now in the middle of my nineteenth year as a professor, having moved through the ranks to full professor and received tenure, I am part of a male-dominated field (especially at the higher ranks) that often warrants far more prestige than K-12 teachers but also receives a fair amount of public shaming and ridicule (notably from conservatives, as my Twitter experience illustrates).

That ridicule is based in large part on cartoonish stereotypes of the Ivory Tower (academic knowledge not being realistic or practical) and a mischaracterization of professors as radical Leftists.

What popular and conservative attacks of higher education often miss is that academia is incredibly traditional, especially in terms of policies and practices that are sexist, racist, classist, and (often) petty.

Higher education, like K-12 education, more often reflects society — the good, the bad, and the ugly — than not.

The Jill Biden debate prompted by the conservative WSJ is an opportunity to confront the gendered inequity of academia that is replicated in the racism, classism, and other inequities that permeate disciplinary hierarchies, the tenure and promotion process (along with faculty evaluation such as student evaluations of teaching [SET]), and numerous unspoken norms.

That higher education fails to be the Ivory Tower of equity is not the only paradox of academia. Many would assume, for example, that academics practice research-based policies and procedures, but one of the greatest inequities of being a professor is the use of SETs for annual evaluations and the tenure/promotion process (see here).

From 2019, Kristen Doerer reported:

“Having a female instructor is correlated with higher student achievement,” Wu said, but female instructors received systematically lower course evaluations. In looking at prerequisite courses, the two researchers found a negative correlation between students’ evaluations and learning. “If you took the prerequisite class from a professor with high student teaching evaluations,” Harbaugh said, “you were likely, everything else equal, to do worse in the second class.”…

Studies since the 1980s have found gender bias in student evaluations and, since the early 2000s, have found racial bias as well. A 2016 study of data from the United States and France found that students’ teaching evaluations “measure students’ gender biases better than they measure the instructor’s teaching effectiveness,” and that more-effective instructors got lower ratings than others did….

Despite the data, at many colleges, particularly research-based institutions, student evaluations are still the main measure, if not the only one, of teaching effectiveness in promotion-and-tenure decisions.

Just as the WSJ editorial staff doubled down on a grossly incompetent and even laughably weak Op-Ed by a classic mediocre white man, academia repeatedly doubles down on SETs, arguing that colleges must have something to evaluate teaching and casually flaunting the research base.

But even the college classroom remains inequitable for women; Lee and McCabe have found that gender inequity in the college classroom hasn’t improved over the past 40 years, as they observed:

Men students are more likely to take the floor to talk while women students are more likely to wait for their turns. Across all nine courses observed, men students talk 1.6 times as often as women. In addition, men are also more likely to speak out without raising their hands, interrupt other speakers in the classroom, and engage in prolonged conversations with the professor during class….

Despite great gains in women’s access to and achievements in higher education, contemporary college classrooms seem to have remained “chilly.” Our observations suggest that men students continue to occupy advantaged positions while women students are largely hesitant to take up space in classrooms. These differences occur regardless of students’ or professors’ awareness of these inequalities.

A key point here is that women for many years have surpassed men in attending and achieving success in higher education. And the nonsensical WSJ Op-Ed seems to reflect anther disturbing finding about gender and higher education by Levanon, England, and Allison:

Occupations with a greater share of females pay less than those with a lower share, controlling for education and skill. This association is explained by two dominant views: devaluation and queuing. The former views the pay offered in an occupation to affect its female proportion, due to employers’ preference for men — a gendered labor queue. The latter argues that the proportion of females in an occupation affects pay, owing to devaluation of work done by women. Only a few past studies used longitudinal data, which is needed to test the theories. We use fixed-effects models, thus controlling for stable characteristics of occupations, and U.S. Census data from 1950 through 2000. We find substantial evidence for the devaluation view, but only scant evidence for the queuing view.

As women surpass men in doctorates, the prestige of that credential has diminished.

Once again, however, we need only to listen to women themselves, of course, to recognize the lower realities of higher education that have nothing to do with cancel culture, Marxism/socialism, or diversity/equity/inclusion initiatives.

Those lower realities are mostly good old American sexism.

“Contrary to what one might have expected,” Allison Miller explainswhile unpacking the Jill Biden controversy, “I have found that the further away from higher education I’ve gotten, the more respect for my degree colleagues have shown.”

Miller continues:

Where I have encountered most disrespect for my doctorate is actually from academics. It’s not just that all Ph.D.s are not created equal — some schools still dominate hiring and will continue to do so as the academic-job market shrinks….

[T]he fetishization of hazing hasn’t disappeared from inside academe….

Once you have a Ph.D. … you learn the lessons of academic hierarchy all over again. What’s called “collegiality” is actually deference, a willingness to get along by going along, to put up with corridor microaggressions, to smile through Professor X’s department-meeting BS — but like a whack-a-mole, there’s always another Professor X. The rules of deference are unwritten because most of them would probably be illegal. “Wait until you get tenure” is not in the faculty handbook….

The demands for deference speak to gatekeeping and a general clubbiness that is hard to penetrate without a background that includes close proximity to upper-middle-class white people.

Three key points must be acknowledged here in order to recognize the lower realities of higher education: “hazing,” “gatekeeping,” and “clubbiness” all confront that higher education is a highly insular and sexist system that, like most formal organizations, is more concerned with conserving its structure than changing for the good of all.

Higher education is often a good ol’ boys club with more credentialing and a more arcane vocabulary.

Attaining a doctorate — PhD or EdD (JD or MD) — is a relatively rare achievement, but those credentials do not guarantee that people are better humans after they earn the opportunity to be called “Dr.”

Dr. X and Dr. Y are no less likely to be selfish and arrogant, and we have no guarantee that anyone in any field, academic or medical, wasn’t last in their class — or isn’t a charlatan, a hack.

But when medical doctors gained the label of “Dr.” (after academics) and when academic doctors were mostly men, society rarely balked at the possibility that “Dr.” didn’t make any of those guarantees.

If anyone is ready for a reckoning in the U.S. (and I doubt many are), we would be better served to question the outsized role of mediocre white men, like the recent scribe of a WSJ Op-Ed, both inside and outside the academy.

In the mean time, it’s Dr. Jill Biden who will be the next FLOTUS, and along with Kamal Harris being the vice president, there is much to celebrate about women and simply no room for adolescent Op-Eds in the WSJ that can’t rise above Ayn Rand basement level pseudo-thinking.

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.

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