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A Career Dilemma

I recently received the November/December issue of the American Federation of Teachers’ publication, On Campus, and opened to the headline: “Community Colleges More Satisfying for Female STEM Faculty.” According to the article, Ohio University researchers found that women make up nearly half of the faculty members at community colleges who teach science, technology, engineering, and mathematics courses (compared with 33 percent who teach such courses at four-year institutions) and that there is greater salary equity between men and women at community colleges.

My first thought was, “Yes! Fantastic! It’s wonderful that women are doing so well at community colleges!” Of course, my next thought was, “Wait a minute. Given that community colleges are at the low end of the prestige scale, and that our faculty are focused more on teaching and service than on scholarship, this study is actually evidence of ghettoization.”

The definition of ghettoization found at Urbandictionary.com is apt: “The process by which minority groups are forced out of the mainstream either physically or culturally.” Actually, we do serve the mainstream, with nearly half of U.S. undergraduates enrolled at community colleges. But the prestige and reward structure of higher education as a whole is firmly established to benefit research universities and selective liberal-arts colleges.

The proportional imbalance of women (as well as other minorities) creates a career dilemma for some of us. We can work at a community college, where it’s likely pay and job satisfaction will be better for women than at four-year colleges, but we will have less time and energy to get our scholarship out into the world. Or we can work at a four-year college with more prestige and opportunities for research, but where we are more likely to feel underappreciated and culturally isolated.

I know that the choices are not quite so clear-cut as I have described them. However, the ghettoization is real, and we should all be concerned about the effects on the mission of higher education. When the perspectives of groups with different cultural experiences are left out (whether based on sex, race, ethnicity, gender, class, ability, or other points of societal stratification), gains in new knowledge will inevitably be incomplete, inaccurate, or downright injurious to the underrepresented or misrepresented groups.

Further, students at all institutions benefit from a diversity of perspectives in the classroom. Students at four-year colleges deserve the same richness of cultural experience from their faculty as those at community colleges, just as students at community colleges deserve a faculty with a broad range of experience in teaching, service, and scholarship.

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