One of the things that always bothers me about universities is how cagey they are when it comes to talking about their place in class reproduction. (For those of you who are uneasy about “class,” try asking yourself about the possible place of universities in hierarchical, even antagonistic social systems of status, prestige, exploitation, wealth, and opportunity.) Sometimes people talk about how universities promote social mobility for students, but, as easy as it is to forget this, even the very idea of “social mobility” presupposes hierarchy and inequality; it takes a structure of inequality to enable the individual to move around within it. As for the social class of the faculty, there too it’s difficult to pin down. In part that’s because longstanding ideologies of the “scholarly guild” tend to conceal class inequalities within the faculty, above all between contingent and non-contingent staff. In part that’s because a traditional Marxist analysis of class has a hard time handling people like academics who have a lot of cultural capital but relatively little actual money. In part that’s because it’s convenient to imagine oneself as classless (which is, moreover, the foundational fantasy of middle-class America).
I find it interesting, therefore, to notice those rare occasions when some sort of class analysis manages to emerge from official academic discourse. If we look at the University of Chicago’s very odd Idea of the University colloquium from 2000-2001, we see that Don Randel, then the university’s president, expressed a very definite faith in his university’s collective attachment to wealth:
“We must hope that values and commitment are the principal reasons for which both faculty and graduate students want to be at The University of Chicago. But we cannot idly expect them to express their values and commitment through any very significant financial sacrifice. One of our greatest challenges for the future, then, will be to find the resources with which to ensure that neither talented faculty nor talented graduate students go to other institutions for the wrong reasons (though it is hard to imagine what a “right” reason could be).”
In other words, Randel argues that the faculty (and graduate students) must be well paid, lest they go elsewhere for the “wrong reasons” (i.e., for crassly economic reasons). The university has continued this argument in the meantime, incidentally; it was one of their main motivations for increasing graduate stipends in humanities and social sciences a few years ago. But Randel doesn’t only observe that many people are motivated by money; he also argues that we can’t expect any very significant financial sacrifice for any apparent higher purpose. Which is a way of saying not only that money matters, but also that it outweighs any foreseeable moral or political motivation. In other words, economic status — indeed, class status — is the bottom line.
Now, I can tell you that most of the responses to this colloquium’s speeches were terribly serious and profound. But the very last response was Andrew Abbott’s, and he seemed to have been appointed court jester for the afternoon. Abbott is one of those senior faculty who has dedicated himself partly to analyzing his own institution; his book Chaos of Disciplines has some genuinely unprecedented ideas about patterns of academic social relations, and he’s written an interesting history of the Chicago sociology department. In his comments on Randel’s speech he argued, half-seriously, half-ironically, that there was nothing special about the University of Chicago, that serious arguments were generally avoided in favor of “non-encounters,” that there was nothing at risk in the faculty’s parlor game of ideas, that “there is little on the line,” and that “we had better wake up and discover a commitment to something besides the nostalgic pleasantries we live with today.” But I was most struck by the moment where Abbott comments on Randel’s comments on class:
It is this kind of non-commitment [to serious intellectual disagreement] that forces Don to his most depressing conclusion, that “we cannot idly expect [faculty] to express their values and commitment through any very significant financial sacrifice.” Excuse me? The median salary of full professors in the Divisions is around the 93rd percentile of the American income distribution. Their children’s college tuitions are paid for. They have health insurance, disability insurance, university-paid trips to conferences, half-price at the lab school, office phones to use for personal long distance, all the usual privileges of the upper class. Do you think the taxi driver who brought me in from O’Hare last Sunday night thinks people who have all this but are in only the 93rd, not the 95th, percentile of income are making a sacrifice? Showing a special commitment? And that we can’t expect people to “express their values and commitment” at the price of that extra trip to London for spring break?
Needless to say, Abbott makes no concrete proposals for financial sacrifice; he goes on to complain about the “endless litany of self-gratulation and narcissistic blackmail” one hears from the faculty.
But if we stop and look beyond the shine of farce that enfolds this text, I’m struck by the fact that never before have I heard a faculty member at my university describe the (senior) faculty as “upper class.” Abbott, to his credit, doesn’t even present this as a revelation; he presents it as obvious. He only manages to muster a bit of indignation for those who imagine that these upper class faculty really can justifiably cling to every last penny of their wealth, to their “extra trips to London” and their easy taxi rides home afterwards. Abbott’s indignation, or is it mock indignation?, seems to be above all for those who believe that their privilege and their claims of moral virtue and “special commitment” are entirely coherent.
Given the serious threat that this argument ought to pose for faculty fantasies of their own virtue, I find it unsurprising that it only appears publicly in the context of a series of half-jokes. In the register of an “Excuse me?” with no practical implications. In the imaginary thoughts of an imaginary taxi driver, conjured up as a member of a lower social class, conjured up as an example of Abbott himself coming in contact with someone less well off.
You could call it a fantasy of class envy.
Maybe even a symptom of a fleeting moment of guilty class consciousness on the part of the professoriate.