I was a little bit stunned to realize yesterday that my working conditions — as a lowly graduate student at the University of Chicago — are in a sense markedly better than those of a typical French public university professor. You see, the University of Chicago owns a building in Paris where they give us, the visiting grad students, office space. But if you are a Maître de Conférences (somewhat like an associate professor) at, say, the University of Paris-8 (Saint-Denis), you get no work space whatsoever, aside from a cramped class preparation lounge where you can leave your coat while you teach your class. University professors in Saint-Denis, unless they are also administrators, must either find office space elsewhere or work at home.
Now I could tell you all sorts of other things about how my home university, a very rich private American university, is different from the French public universities I’ve encountered. But I’ve looked up some figures and, frankly, the sheer quantitative difference between Paris-8 and UChicago is so enormous that it almost speaks for itself. Behold:
|Students||21,487||15,149||1.4 : 1|
|Faculty||1,075||2,211||1 : 2.1|
|Staff||601||~12,000||1 : 20|
|# Buildings||11||more than 190||1 : 17|
|Annual Budget||€119.3 million||$2.8 billion||1 : 16.8|
As you can see, there are actually 6,338 more students enrolled at Paris-8 than at the University of Chicago. However, the balance tips the other way for every other indicator. In Chicago there are twice as many faculty (for fewer students), twenty times as many staff, and seventeen times more campus buildings — which is probably an underestimate, since UChicago also owns a lot of residential and commercial real estate in its neighborhood over and above the campus buildings. UChicago’s annual budget of $2.8 billion is also about seventeen times larger than that of Saint-Denis, and of course, UChicago controls an endowment of 4+ billion dollars while Paris-8 has an endowment of, as far as I know, zero. (French universities don’t have endowments; and much of their funding is dispersed directly by the ministry, though that’s changing as a result of contested “autonomy” protocols being put in place. The Chicago endowment on the other hand used to be $6.6 billion, though they claim it shrunk as much as 30% during last year’s economic crisis.) At any rate, I think the overall picture here is clear: the disparity in organizational wealth is enormous. The disparity in teacher-student ratios is obvious. The disparity in staff, money and buildings is even more obvious. This isn’t, in short, just a story about simple difference; it is a story about profound educational inequality within and between nations. If we imagine a similar 17x disparity between two American workers, it would be similar to the difference between someone who makes $15,000 working minimum wage in a fast food restaurant and someone who gets a quarter million dollars a year as an executive.
The whole long international history of how these different universities came to be so economically different is something I can’t get into here. And there are, for that matter, some interesting commonalities between the universities that aren’t obvious from the official statistics. For instance, I happen to know that the official count of the staff population is probably too low in both cases, since both universities employ significant groups of outside contractors to do various sorts of campus service work. While Paris-8 has private security guards, UChicago has, for instance, outsourced its janitorial staff; and these people should probably be counted as staff, because they are regular campus workers even if their paychecks are routed through some private entity. The faculty counts are probably unreliable as well, since both campuses hire teachers who are graduate students and, in Chicago’s case, temporary adjunct faculty who probably aren’t being counted in the official size of the faculty population. (This is, of course, just a guess; I don’t know for sure how they compile these figures. But it’s well-known that, in the U.S. case, there are various reasons why administrators don’t like to count grad student teachers in the ranks of their teaching staff.) At any rate, it’s anyone’s guess whether the systematic skewing of these figures would cancel out across these two universities in the context of the comparison here.
In a lot of ways it’s an unsatisfying comparison. Similarly vast wealth disparities could be found by comparing UChicago to an American community college. Still, even leaving aside all the cultural and intellectual and sociological and historical and political differences that separate UChicago and Paris-8, leaving aside everything that you would have to consider to make a comparison satisfying to an anthropologist, even just looking at the most crude and basic figures, it’s worth thinking about the extent to which campus life is bluntly determined by available wealth. Indeed, maybe it’s good to start out by thinking about the gross inequities in material resources across universities. Maybe only once you’ve taken account of that can you really understand how some kinds of academic life depend on large fluxes of cash or, conversely, manage to flourish in spite of them.