A decade ago I kissed the golden handcuffs of tenure goodbye. I walked away from teaching journalism and media studies at Ithaca College in May 2002. No one bothered to ask me why.
The conditions and experiences haven’t gotten much better for female faculty and in some ways worse. In 1980, 49 percent of full-time female faculty had tenure, compared to 70 percent of men. By 2005-2006, the percentage of women with tenure dropped to 43 percent, according to American Association of University Professors (AAUP), despite the fact that more women earned Ph.D.s. In fact, in the academic year 2008-2009, more women earned doctoral degrees than men. Women in Higher Education: The Fight for Equity, edited by Marian Meyers, (Hampton Press, 2012) provides a depressing account of the status of women in American colleges and universities after 40 years of struggles.
Reading this new book about the politics of tenure and promotion, sexual harassment, and the intersections of race, class, and gender, it struck me: there has been little research on the subject of gender equity in higher education since the 1990s. Even though I hadn’t kept up on the literature, I hadn’t missed anything since Annette Kolodny wrote Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education (Duke University Press, 1998).
Following a career path of feminist scholarship is now more than ever a Scarlet Letter on a woman’s c.v. Even raising the research question of how women fare inside the ivory towers is dangerous terrain. Meyers’ book itself is evidence for this lack of institutional support for investigating the fight for equity in academia. Denied research leaves and other forms of institutional resources, it took Marian Meyers nearly three years to complete the edited manuscript.
The dirty secret of academia is that women faculty and graduate students in higher education today are “The Help”: maids allowed into the house to tend to the real work. Tenured female faculty members who have served decades at a university or college are penalized by salary compression and rewarded with wages on average lower than male high school teachers and office managers. The shame and stigma of financially marginal status for women in higher education is something Rachel Wagner, a recently tenured associate professor of religion at Ithaca College wrote about in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Bootstrapping my Way into the Ivory Tower,” November 8, 2011.
“If you’re a college professor, people assume that if you don’t have a healthy bank account, you must be a closet gambler or have some other hidden addiction. But my financial predicament is a result of bootstrapping my way into academe, and the harsh reality of leaping from rural Arkansas to a professor’s job in upstate New York with no financial support system along the way. Indeed, it was not a leap at all but a long, slow, humiliating slog,” wrote Rachel Wagner.
Carolyn Byerly, a former colleague denied tenure at Ithaca College in 2002, wrote the third chapter. “Gender, Critical Scholarship, and the Politics of Tenure and Promotion,” situates and theorizes the nature of the struggle over pedagogy, promotion, and tenure as civic, political and moral. Using her experience to exemplify others, Byerly describes the legal response to discriminatory practices and process.
“I sat in a court of appeals in New York and watched three White male judges query my lawyer about what diversity and feminism had to do with journalism, and why did being denied tenure and promotion over those things constitute discrimination. The eldest of the three, an 87-year-old man, stood up, shook his fist and yelled at my attorney for criticizing an earlier judge’s ruling – that judge, he said, was his long-time friend and trusted colleague” (53). By the time she lost the legal case on appeal, Carolyn Byerly had moved on to Howard University where she is now a tenured full professor.
Several other chapters in Marian Meyers’ Women in Higher Education provide first-hand testimony to the challenges of surviving, much less advancing, as women in the academy. Catherine Medina writes about negotiating the academic systems of power from her Puerto Rican multidimensional lens. Diana Rios is a southwestern Chicana in the Connecticut Yankee realm. African American, Asian American, lesbian, and working-class women’s voices are included. What still goes unnoticed is how the onus is on women, not men, to negotiate these systems of power inside institutions of higher education.
The work-family-life balancing act, lack of mentors and opportunities for professional development, physical safety and personal security, child care and parental care, and the climate of their work environment remain pressing issues and are addressed in separate chapters. Seems so 1970s. Marian Meyers has edited a collection of essays that provide a disheartening assessment.
Identifying the organizational and institutional conditions that hinder or facilitate the success of academic women is the first step. This book takes that step. Eliminating these hindrances, largely by enforcing policies already on the books, and investing in steps to facilitate equity requires institutional leadership from men as much as women. Meyers pushes the envelope and calls for a radical rethinking and restructuring of the academy to facilitate equality. Both enforcing existing equity policies and creating new structural supports for equity in higher education are necessary and long overdue.
My mother gave me a piece of unsolicited advice when I was a teenager thinking about college. She’d worked most of her adult life in secretarial positions.
“Just don’t learn to type,” she told me.
“Why?” I asked.
“If they find out you can type, then that’s all they think you’ll be able to do,” mom said. She didn’t want me to grow up to be a typist.
If I had a daughter, I’d want to spare her the heartache and struggle that still wears on for female intellectual laborers inside institutions of higher education.
Meyers’ book will affirm those still working in the trenches of higher education that they are not alone and the fight is a worthy one. Speak out, document the inequalities, and advocate for change. What Marian Meyers, and the other brave women who contributed to this anthology, want for themselves — and all of our daughters — is an academy where they can learn and grow in an environment where they have the same access to resources and privileges as their male colleagues.