Who are the academic elite, exactly?
Most sessional teachers in the ‘ivory tower’ are just trying to scrape out a living
Back in February, The Spectator daringly published not one, but two articles about prominent McMaster figures’ responses to Donald Trump’s election. TWO. On the same day! McMaster University professor Henry Giroux and McMaster University president Patrick Deane both, unsurprisingly, warned against Trump’s ideology. Sure enough, the articles provoked some populist ire: one letter to the editor slammed both men as “cosseted, financially secure liberals” from the “ivory tower” who are part of “the elites [...], exhibiting cultural snobbery even as they preen in their own superiority.” Does working in an ivory tower automatically make you one of the elites?
I was similarly struck by Michael Enright’s April 2 interview with Preston Manning on CBC’s Sunday Edition; Manning repeatedly referred to “financial, political and academic elites.” Again, the logic eludes me: since when are academics roaming the halls of power with the corporate lobbyists, the financiers, and the policy-makers?
Academics sure can’t claim elite status by their pay rate: from 2002 to 2014, part-time and temporary instructor assignments (sessional, adjunct, or contract work) went up by 135 per cent, but the number of full-time faculty increased by only 20 per cent. Over roughly the same period, full-time student enrolment alone went up by about 50 per cent. As Maclean’s reported in 2014, sessional teachers make about $28,000 per year for teaching four courses (often at different schools), while full-time tenure track profs will make between $80,000 and $150,000 for teaching the same number of courses on one campus. This cheap labour is increasingly being used to churn larger and larger numbers of students through the system: sessionals teach more than half of all undergrad students in Canada, which for Laurier, for example, looks like 4 per cent of its operating budget being used to teach 50 per cent of its students. It’s more of a recycled plastic tower than an ivory tower, really.
The college system does a better job of keeping track of the stats on this kind of thing: in Ontario, part-time faculty make up almost 70 per cent of college instructors. So it would appear that most working academics, i.e. post-secondary instructors, make a whopping, cosseted $5,000 above the Canadian poverty line. Truly, one must shield one’s eyes, lest one’s retinas be burned by the white hot glare of their privilege.
Aside from the issue of pay, an academic’s relationship to the concept of “elite” can be kind of messed up. On one hand: I remember that, as a grad student, I was in a group continually reminded that, as people hoping to teach at university, we were lost causes. I once got a form letter from a university thanking me for my application to their graduate program and also reminding me that there was little if any chance of my ever becoming a professor. As part of my PhD studies, I had to read a book called “The University in Ruins.”
On the other hand: as a humanities student, I often learned about the scale and scope of the damage done by the privileged (white middle class people like me), and the unfair advantage I had simply because I was born into a situation in which a university education was even an option. So from this perspective, I was elite, but only insofar as it was something I was uneasy and vaguely ashamed about.
I don’t know if the same thing was going on for academics in the sciences, but my memories of scientists worriedly stuffing their car trunks full of data when the Harper government was on its mission to dump vast quantities of research … well, they make me think that the scientists don’t feel all that elite, either.
So many academics spend their time researching things like poverty, democracy, education, public policy, the environment ... things that give them a fairly good idea about the injustices suffered by the disempowered. This is why there’s such evil genius in labelling them elites themselves: the professionals, along with journalists (also currently maligned as “elite”), perhaps best trained to research and report on the real breadth and depth of the world’s injustices, are rendered less credible by associating them with the actual culprits. It’s the cultural equivalent of that classic fart riposte, “Whoever smelt it, dealt it.”
But let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that all academics had stable, middle class employment teaching and researching and publishing and generally promoting truth and knowledge and stuff. Would that make them elite? Would it make them employers of hundreds? Of thousands? Would it mean they could sway millions in government spending? Would they shape the media content that reached billions of eyeballs every day? Would they have power over the quality of air we breathe? In the age of Apple and Warren Buffett, can the category of “elite” really be applied to academics?
As part of my PhD studies, I had to read a book called ‘The University in Ruins.’