Sunday, December 05, 2004

Working-class Academics

Steve Philion asks: "Anyone know some good sources on class backround of profs, especially left leaning profs? On the Marc Cooper discussion blog, he [Marc Cooper] and others are trying to claim that professors who are left leaning are mostly privileged wealthy elitists with no working class background to speak of" (LBO-talk, December 5, 2004).

Jim Vander Putten's summary of research on faculty's class backgrounds tells us that, institutions of tertiary education being greatly stratified, class origins of faculty and degrees of institutional prestige of their employers are positively correlated:
Lipset and Ladd (1979) reported results from the 1969 and 1975 Carnegie Commission on Higher Education faculty surveys that inquired into faculty background factors (i.e., ethnic origin, religious affiliation, historical assessment of family SES). . . . [T]hey identified that social class origin continued to influence who became a faculty member and at what types of institutions they were employed. More specifically, they found parallel results between institutional prestige and social class; more prestigious research-oriented universities employed faculty from higher social class at a disproportionate rate, and faculty offspring were most likely to work at the most prestigious schools; middle-class offspring trailed the higher social class group, while faculty from working-class and farm backgrounds were most likely employed at lower-status colleges. . . .

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There is evidence that one's social class exerts influence on the type of institution in which one can pursue the doctorate. Lang (1987) identified that higher education sustains a system with distinct status divisions that often make it difficult for individuals from modest backgrounds to enter top private universities. The findings on institutional prestige and social class have been confirmed by Boatsman and Antony’s (1995) study of the 1989 CIRP survey data on college and university faculty, in which they found that the trend of higher social class as being associated with higher institutional prestige has continued, even after controlling for age cohort, ethnicity, and gender. ("Get in the Truck: Working-class Faculty and Intent to Depart," May 29-June 1, 1999, pp. 2-3)
As "lower-status colleges" greatly outnumber "prestigious research-oriented universities," it is fair to hypothesize that the majority of college teachers come from working-class backgrounds, by the standards of the aforementioned researchers' works.

Statistically, "according to 1989 survey data, approximately fifty percent of the parents of all university faculty had attended college, were college graduates, or had finished an advanced degree," Kenneth Oldfield and Richard F. Conant report ("Professors, Social Class, and Affirmative Action: A Pilot Study," 2001), citing a 1997 study by Joseph M. Stetar and Martin J. Finkelstein. Oldfield and Conant's own analysis of the parental socioeconomic status (SES) of teaching faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) shows that, while the parents of UIUC faculty had higher socioeconomic statuses and levels of education education than the national averages, from a little less than half (measured by parental socioeconomic statuses) to two thirds (measured by parental educational attainments) of the faculty are not from privileged backgrounds:
Graph 1 presents the results of comparing the sample parental NPT [Nam-Powers-Terrie] SES (n = 821)6 against the national NPT SES (n = 122, 473, 499). Over half (51.6 percent) the faculty are in the two highest categories, while about twenty-two percent (21.8 percent) of the nation falls there, a 2.4:1 ratio. The differences are even more extreme for the lowest categories. Less than two percent (1.9 percent) of the faculty sample falls in the two lowest classifications, versus more than thirteen percent (13.4 percent) for the national population, about a 7:1 ratio. The KS [Kolmogorov-Smirnov goodness of fit] statistic is significant beyond .001.

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The findings for educational achievement are about equally divergent. Graph 2 shows the UIUC (n = 567) versus national comparisons (n = 51, 283, 636) for highest education by household. The differences are most pronounced in the highest category. Over one-third of faculty parents had more than an undergraduate degree, while only about 10 percent of Americans had this much schooling. The K-S statistic is significant beyond .001.

Graph 3 compares UIUC parental education (n = 1,133)7 against the state’s schooling (n = 7,293, 930). The UIUC parental schooling somewhat better reflects the statewide achievement, which is not surprising, since Illinois schooling exceeds the national average and the sample was not separated by higher educational attainment per household. Still, the UIUC figures for schooling-beyond-an-undergraduate-degree exceed the state’s by approximately three to one. The KS statistic is significant beyond .001.

In sum, this research shows that UIUC faculty members are highly unrepresentative for SES and educational attainment. The sample is especially heavily weighted toward the two highest occupational categories, and over half (54 percent) the respondents said that at least one parent had an undergraduate or graduate degree, versus 27 percent for the nation. These education discrepancies would have been more pronounced had we controlled for age. Thus, UIUC would be justified in using SESAA to diversify its faculty; the university should recruit and hire more lower SES candidates to be representative. ("Professors, Social Class, and Affirmative Action: A Pilot Study," 2000, pp. 17-19)
Lastly, it is important to keep in mind that most American social scientists who study classes (though their definitions vary) regard them as a matter of measuring and classifying individuals' incomes, social statuses, educational levels, and so on, in contrast to classical Marxists who would view all wage workers -- whether they have high or low incomes, more or less formal education, and blue-collar or white-collar occupations -- as stratified members of the working class. College teachers and researchers themselves, more often than not, subscribe to the former's understanding of classes rather than the latter's, so they believe that most of them are "middle-class" -- a belief that is an obstacle to their own unionization and solidarity with other workers.

As for politics of professors, my suspicion is that academia does not want a really radical and truly rich intellectual -- like Paul Sweezy -- because a left-wing person rich enough not to have to depend upon an academic salary would feel free to spout off all kinds of stuff, undeterred by any fear of losing the job. (As a matter of fact, most professors are liberal-to-moderate Democrats, not left-wing radicals of any sort.) The maximum political freedom in a capitalist society, under ordinary circumstances, may belong to people who are too rich or too poor to fear unemployment. Under normal business conditions (excepting extremely good and bad times), people who are in the middle do not have enough to make them independent of the labor market but may have too much not to fear the possibility of losing it.


steve heeren said...

I don't agree that most professors are liberal to moderate Democrats. I recall a study of about 10 years ago of the US professoriate in which it was found that about one-third labeled themselves as conservative, a slightly lesser percent called themselves moderate, another third liberal, and 3.4% seeing themselves as "far left."!!! I think it was a study for the AUCC, or whatever your national faculty organization is called (I live in Canada) and it was a huge sample so I give the results a lot of credence.

DMF said...

I am a poverty class academic that is left leaning. My dad was a janitor with schizophrenia and my mom who has bipolar disorder was on disability most of her life while alternating with temp work. Most of my siblings work in factories. Tagging me as elite would be so laughable.