Great wealth: the privilege academia really doesn’t want to discuss

Having enormous amounts of money changes how a school does education, but it’s something we really don’t want to discuss in higher education.  Being well-endowed, or just rich, is definitely a form of privilege, and yet we try not to talk about it.  It’s education’s unspoken, unacknowledged, unchecked privilege in an era of ever-increasing educational oligarchy.

"Education in Privilege", Paul BrookerI’ve  noticed this over the past few years in my work.  Visiting campuses, consulting with organizations, and reading academics’ work, I see academics (professors,librarians, technologists, upper administrators) blithely describe projects they’ve implemented, without any sign of awareness that they could only do that work the way they did thanks to their institution’s privilege.  They commend methods and practices to an audience that might not be able to afford them.  They describe challenges that many in education would love to be able to face.

Item: Harvard staff complaining at a NERCOMP event a few years back that they couldn’t afford to do something.  Because they had tight budgets, you see.  Yes, Harvard.  They actually solicited the audience’s sympathy.

Item: a teacher from a private high school in Massachusetts costing $41,000/year on average describing a digital storytelling effort based on every student having their own new Macbook Pro.  And class sizes of around 8.

(To this presenter’s credit, when I asked her how other, less rich schools could implement this practice, she frowned and admitted it would be difficult.  She recommended relying on students’ iPhones, because, I suppose, all students have iPhones in her world. I feared my question would be seen as hostile.)

Item: tenured faculty complaining about a local administration that doesn’t listen to them as they’d like, without mentioning that adjuncts – who can be hired and fired at will by those less than perfectly collegial administrators, on a semester basis – even exist.  It literally goes without saying that adjuncts have no voice whatsoever in campus governance.

Item: Slate and a Stanford provost asserting that very rich students = typical students.

Item: faculty, staff, and journalists treating William Deresiewicz’s ur-Ivy League screed Excellent Sheep (2014) as if it was about the typical American college student.  Or the typical American campus.

Item: the headmaster of an Austin, Texas private high school costing roughly $50,000/year exhorting teachers to set up lavish maker spaces, reboot curricula, and establish deep, individual relationships with students.

"Privilege," Stephen Dann

If academia is to avoid becoming split into an oligarchy and the rest, we need to stop doing this.  We need to acknowledge that massive wealth disparities exist and have powerful impacts on our work at all levels.  If academia is going to commit to social justice, those in the elite need to admit, and check, their privilege.

When the elite communicates to the elite (check the first photo, up above)… that’s not what I’m referring to.  I’m describing academic communication among a general audience of educators.  And that situation is increasingly normative, with the spread of mobile devices, social media, and web publishing.

I really hate the overuse of this expression, but the existence and implications of massive resource inequalities among institutions really is the elephant in education’s living room.

(photos by Paul Brooker and Stephen Dann)

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23 Responses to Great wealth: the privilege academia really doesn’t want to discuss

  1. edwebb says:

    The college in your photo is Pembroke, my undergrad alma mater, and in fact not one of the richest Cambridge colleges, although it is the third oldest, so it looks glamorous. Even there, a pecking order exists, and the fabulous, extravagant wealth of Trinity, for instance, allows them to do far more in terms of endowed chairs etc. than middle class Pembroke.

    But the British system up to and including the elite colleges and universities (for all that it has moved recently in a more American direction, saddling undergrads with debt and putting institutions in a fundraising arms race) was for most of the post-World War II period in general a genuine ladder of social mobility that allowed kids like me with no background of wealth or social privilege to attend the best institutions if we had the academic chops and drive. Few in my parents’ generation of my extended family had much, if any, education beyond the secondary level, although quite a few became involved in K12 teaching. My two siblings and I have two doctorates, three masters, and three bachelors between us from good universities, mostly achieved with very little in the way of debt.

    The U.S. system runs on money, and increasingly on private money, top to bottom. As government retreats, the endowments and fundraising matter more and more. We’ve seen how the small liberal arts colleges are struggling to keep the model alive against the tide of demand for results that can be quantified in facile, short-term ways (it’s never going to be our strong suit). An institution like my own, Dickinson, which does not have large endowments, must constantly innovate. But it is easy for better-endowed colleges to note what works well here, and then borrow the best ideas and spend more money on doing the same things more thoroughly. We live on our wits, and we have them aplenty, but it’s an exhausting way to live. The community colleges and state systems that educate the bulk of the population have next to nothing to spend per student. Their efforts are often heroic but necessarily constrained, and to the extent the education system is producing social mobility, that’s where most of it is coming from (except in efforts like the Posse Foundation, which I’m glad Dickinson works with, along with other initiatives to improve our socioeconomic diversity).

    • Many thanks for this generous post, my dear Ed. No offense intended to Pembroke; that photo just bobbed to the top of a Flickr search for keyword “privilege.”

      Yes indeed, the middle of the 20th century was what some have called “the great compression,” when income inequalities in the UK, the US, and others were reduced to an extraordinary level. Circa 1980 that reversed, and we’ve been entering the Great Gatsby world ever since, headed for the Gilded/Victorian age next. Robert Putnam found evidence for this in _Our Kids_.

      Dickinson is a splendid place, as I keep telling people, led by unusual innovators like yourself. Keep going!

  2. Curtis says:

    For me this might be the sadest report in your report. ” I feared my question would be seen as hostile.)” And, in an academic environment which presumably thrives on questions. Now that I think about it more, it might hint at the private near sacred nature of money.

    • I didn’t want to stress that point, Curtis, so I’m glad you caught it.
      Asking about money in higher ed is still seen as gauche, especially away from the money-making STEM fields (ie., not math). Has it become more so as institutional inequality has soared?

      • professorjvg says:

        It’s certainly gauche in some circles, which brings us back around to elitism again. Most of us in under-resources places are pretty happy to talk about the lack of money.

  3. Joy Pixley says:

    Then there’s the next item in the chain, where people who went to expensive private high schools and universities and got their PhDs at wealthy schools become professors themselves. I know one such person who, despite his training as a sociologist (!!) could never quite grasp the idea that other kids had fewer resources than he did, and that this affected the skills, knowledge, experiences, practices, etc. that someone from his background takes for granted as being normal. When faced with students who don’t do as well as he did, he tended to assume they “hadn’t tried hard enough” and were clearly not very promising. And so the division persists to the next level: the professors with the wealthiest educations may spend the most time working with the students who also had the wealthiest backgrounds, because they’re the only ones worth their time.

    • Ah, the myth of grit.
      You put your finger on an especially important point, Joy. Perhaps we’ll see more of this as tenured positions become increasingly scarce, and as K-12 inequalities grow.

  4. VanessaVaile says:

    And then some that don’t become professors take up K12 education reform and setting education policy. This is a common theme on the Education Bloggers Network.

  5. Joe Murphy says:

    Not excuses, but hypotheses toward explanations…

    I wonder how much this is related to the “aspirational peer group.” Seems like we’re always in the process of defining ourselves in relationship to other schools doing slightly more with slightly more money. We set ourselves up for envy and acquisition – and at the super-elite level, I imagine they’ve started to hang around with enough captains of industry and government to envy their budgets. What would the structure look like which would allow us to be invested in the financial stability of the schools who aspire to be more like us? (Some kind of United Way for college fundraising?) Consortia and group lobbying approximate this, but they’re actually pretty fragile if the elites perceive they’re not reaping benefits appropriate to their investment, and their overall institutional impact is limited.

    On the individual level, I suspect a lot has to do with distribution of resources inside the institution – and the fact that it’s often not transparent and even more often not communicated well (or understanding of college finances is not actually pursued by the faculty members). A person might complain that she can’t get the resources she wants if she perceives that the money is flowing away from her and toward a hot new area of research / a boring old area of research / job skills / liberal arts navel gazers / the Athletics department / new “administrators”. And of course there’s the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” and “always spend your entire budget or they’ll take it away” axioms. Would things get any better if the books were more open and people understood them holistically? Maybe, maybe not, but at least the conversation would be based on facts and not assumptions.

    I also wonder how much this slouching-toward-oligarchy system might be accidentally supported by elites’ service learning and meritocratic diversity efforts. Is there a risk of our institutions’ feeling that we’ve “checked our boxes” by working with deeply underprivileged communities, allowing us to ignore inequity among higher education institutions? Do our local efforts exhaust our perceived capacity for compassion or collaboration? (There’s a vice versa too – did I check my boxes at the consortial meeting or the professional association’s petition drive?) If these things are in play, then there’s a ton of value in just talking about it, in ways which help us expand our perceived capacity to care.

    • Excellent ruminations, Joe, both on the macro and individual levels.

      Meritocracy certainly seems to play a role. Did you know the term first appeared as a satirical one?

      PS: can I use “slouching-toward-oligarchy”?

  6. professorjvg says:

    Thanks for saying this out loud Bryan.

    If I do the math, every laptop, tablet, set of headphones or mic for my digital projects at my small state school has been acquired only with hours of my time — meeting with potential donors, applying for competitive internal funds, searching for grants, writing justifications for regular budget processes, searching for lower cost alternatives. I work in Education. More “techie” programs on my campus are much more likely to get donations from tech industries, but none us can assume that we will just have the equipment to teach what we need to teach unless someone with the power to do do donates above and beyond our very basic funding.

    When I have tried try to teach with BYOD, the very diverse economic backgrounds of my students mean that I spend a lot of class time troubleshooting old operating systems and dysfunctional equipment (It’s fairly common for parents in my program to make sure that their kids have any updated equipment for their school work while they as parents take the left-overs).

    Meanwhile, my students work in K-12 classrooms with deep disparities. In some schools, teachers have just quit trying to use the three outdated computers in the back of the classroom. Across the district, wealthy parents hold festive fund-raisers to buy whatever the school needs — or individual parents just donate class sets of laptops.

    So again, thanks for saying this out loud. These can’t be private matters, and I can’t protect those who take their resources for granted from the discomfort of raising questions about these disparities.

    • I’m delighted you posted, professorjvg. Thank you for the reflections on your experience, as well as the support.

      BYOD is extremely hard for campuses that are neither wealthy enough to afford a serious 1:1 program, or who have students rich enough to just bring their own.

      Your observation “Across the district, wealthy parents hold festive fund-raisers to buy whatever the school needs — or individual parents just donate class sets of laptops” brought to mind Robert Putnam’s _Our Kids_. Did you get to look into that yet?

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  8. Will Barratt says:

    I work at an open admissions university in Thailand and this educational oligarchy is a fact of life here, disguised as rankings. Creating and maintaining the structures of privilege and disguising them as standards is a fact of educational life. Private schools are popping up to help children get into high prestige colleges, and are often owned by foreign investors.

    Thanks for keeping this conversation going and for my words for the day: Educational Oligarchy

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  10. sensor63 says:

    This is a very timely post Bryan.
    Thank you. Examples are everywhere. Here is one I lived just last week:

    went to my friend’s thesis defence last week.

    He was talking about teaching classes of 80 students in Cameroon to speak French.

    He had to pay out of his own pocket for his students to have access to the computer lab so that he could do his research in order to present his thesis.

    The French/Swiss jury’s refined questioning was possible only as a result of their privileged contexts.

    As I said to a friend sitting next to me:

    “If you are starving you don’t concern yourself with how you want your steak cooked.”

  11. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    ICYMI in syndication on the Precarious Faculty Network Facebook page (so I don’t miss sharing any).

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