Inequality in the Academic World

As we talk about higher education in the 21st century, there are big-picture questions to address: What is the purpose of our varying institutions? What are our teaching goals — to give students a broad liberal-arts education or job preparation? How can we best meet those goals and use our dollars?

Since I attended the New Faculty Majority summit, however, I’ve been thinking about something equally important: education as a matter of civil rights and social justice.

Anne Wiegard, president of the NFM Foundation, shared remarks with a pre-summit group that were based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s words: “We can never be satisfied as long as our colleagues are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating ‘For Tenure Track Only.’” She talked about inequality in the academic world — in terms of academic freedom, job security, and more.

There are two faculty worlds in academe, whether you are at a top research university or a community college: tenure track and nontenure track. There are also separate-but-unequal spheres when it comes to our students. This was brought into stark focus by Heather Wathington, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Virginia who spoke at the summit. Contingent faculty primarily teach students who are first-generation, immigrants, poor, or all of the above.

These are the students I teach at my border community college and I sometimes forget that these high-need groups aren’t geographically isolated. Everywhere you go, there are students who need extra support if they want to achieve the American dream of getting an education and moving up in the world. Too often, though, they are receiving a second-tier education. Their professors are plenty qualified, but they have little time to work with students because of their contingent status. These professors may not know they are teaching a class until the last minute. These professors simply aren’t able to be the steady professional role models that disenfranchised students need.

The issues of contingent faculty aren’t just about improving the lot of teachers; they are issues at the very core of what we value and promise as a society.

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