Equity in Academia
When the last student left Melinda Wilkerson’s office at 5:30 p.m., the young English Professor just sat, too exhausted to move. Her desk was piled high with student papers, journals, and recommendation forms. “There goes my weekend,” she thought to herself, knowing that just reading and commenting on the thirty journals would take up all of Saturday. She liked reading the journals, getting a glimpse of how her students were reacting to the novels and poems she had them read, watching them grow and change. But recently, as she picked up another journal from the bottomless pile or greeted another student with a smile, she often wondered whether it was all worth it.
Wilkerson had had such a moment about an hour earlier, when Ron Agua, whose office was across the hall, had waved to her as he walked past her door. “I’m off to the Rat,” he announced. “Come join us if you ever get free.” For a moment Wilkerson had stared blankly at the student before her, pondering the scene at the Rathskeller, the university’s most popular restaurant and meeting place. Agua would be there with four or five of the department’s senior members, including Alice Bordy, the department chair. All would be glad to have her join them . . . if only she didn’t have so much work.
At the start of her first year as an assistant professor, Wilkerson had accepted her overwhelming workload as part of the territory. Her paycheck was smaller and her hours longer than she had expected, but Agua and the other two new faculty members seemed to be suffering under the same burdens.
But now, in her second semester, Wilkerson was beginning to feel that things weren’t right. The stream of students knocking on her door persisted, but she noticed that Agua was spending less time talking and more time at his word processor than he had during the first semester. When asked, Agua told her he had reduced his course load because of his extra work on the department’s hiring and library committees. He seemed surprised when Wilkerson admitted that she didn’t know there was such a thing as a course reduction.
As the semester progressed, Wilkerson realized there was a lot she didn’t know about the way the department functioned. Agua would disappear once a week or so to give talks to groups around the state and then would turn those talks into papers for scholarly journals—something Wilkerson couldn’t dream of having time to do. She and Agua were still good friends, but she began to see differences in their approaches. “I cut down my office hours this semester,” he told her one day. “With all those students around all the time, I just never had a chance to get my work done.”
Wilkerson had pondered that statement for a few weeks. She thought that dealing with students was “getting work done.” But when salaries for the following year were announced, she realized what Agua meant. He would be making almost $1,000 more than she; the human resources committee viewed his committee work as a valuable asset to the department, his talks around the state had already earned him notoriety, and his three upcoming publications clearly put him ahead of the other first-year professors.
Wilkerson was confused. Agua hadn’t done anything sneaky or immoral—in fact, everything he did was admirable, things she would have liked to do. His trips to the Rat gave him the inside scoop on what to do and whom to talk to, but she couldn’t blame him for that either. She could have done exactly the same thing. They worked equally hard, she thought. Yet Agua already was the highly paid star, whereas she was just another overworked instructor.
As she began piling all the books, papers, and journals into her bag, Wilkerson thought about what she could do. She could quit and go somewhere else where she might be more appreciated, but jobs were hard to find and she suspected that the same thing might happen there. She could charge sex discrimination and demand to be paid as much as Agua, but that would be unfair to him and she didn’t really feel discriminated against for being a woman. The university simply didn’t value what she did with her time as highly as it valued what Agua did with his.
Putting on her coat, Wilkerson spotted a piece of paper that had dropped out of one of the journals. She picked it up and saw it was a note from Wendy Martin, one of her freshman students. “Professor Wilkerson,” it read, “I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk to me last week. I really needed to talk to someone experienced about it, and all my other professors are men, and I just couldn’t have talked to them. You helped me a whole lot.”
Sighing, Wilkerson folded the note, put it in her bag, and closed her office door. Suddenly the pile of journals and the $1,000 didn’t seem so important.