COLUMN: UC professor says success in academia must be redefined in order for voices to be heard

'We need to take risks'

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of opinion editorials written by University of Cincinnati faculty and staff who took part in a seminar by The OpEd Project, which focuses on increasing the range of voices and quality of ideas we hear in the world. It was funded, in part, by the Scripps Howard Foundation.

CINCINNATI -- Professors from under-represented groups in academia, including women and people of color, have a lot to contribute as public intellectuals.

Earlier this year, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof set off an academic firestorm when he wrote, “Professors, We Need You!” In the column, he suggested “some of the smartest thinkers…just don’t matter in today’s great debates.”

His call for professors to be stronger public intellectuals and not “cloister” ourselves “like medieval monks” provoked responses across the ideological and disciplinary spectrum. Scholars from under-represented groups spoke particularly passionately about the subject.

We haven’t come a long way, baby

Women comprise just 38 percent of all tenure-track and tenured professors on U.S. campuses, and faculty of color comprise about only 20 percent.

A recent AAUP study reveals that women make about 78 cents on the dollar compared to what men make at universities with graduate programs, and some have pointed out that the representation gap, whereby women are underrepresented “in the upper echelons of the academic workplace,” is even more significant than the gender pay gap.

Despite this, many professors from under-represented groups have long contributed to some of the largest public debates of our time.

Melissa Harris Perry, a professor of political science, is well known for bringing under-represented voices into the media spotlight. Professors such as Michael Eric Dyson, Martha Nussbaum, Judith Butler and Angela Davis are now part of an academic elite that has challenged mainstream ideas and helped shift national debates about major issues such as privilege, inequality, citizenship and human rights.

But the majority of professors, known in their fields but not necessarily part of the new academic celebrity elite, change lives in less visible ways.

Students look up to them as mentors; community members seek their advice.

They also advance research agendas, which is important in and of itself – a fact many politicians seeking quick economic reforms seem to forget.

Publish or perish? You bet

In his column, Kristof makes some good points: It’s certainly true that some professors could find ways to make their research more accessible to broader audiences.

If the tenure process were less stressful, emerging scholars might feel they have more time to interact with students, staff and local communities; tenured faculty might then become better at this as well.

Yet more often than not, as several scholars have pointed out in responses to Kristof, tenure-track professors are rewarded for publishing in academic journals with small, specialized audiences.

Our writing and the terms we use are not always accessible to the public.

While university administrators may claim that teaching is important, we are primarily rewarded tenure (and job security) because of time-intensive, highly specialized research.

Given those constraints, it’s hard to imagine spending even more time publishing other kinds of writing, which often requires a whole different set of skills.

Most academics aren’t trained to promote themselves, so we tend to resist “branding” initiatives and social media.

Yet artists and musicians have long “branded” their work in order to be recognized, and advocates and professionals in fields as varied as healthcare, public policy and global human rights routinely contribute to public decision-making processes with wide, often global publics.

They take risks. We need to take risks to be heard.

Separate and unequal

But herein lies the central problem: We do not all enter academia on the same footing, nor do we hold equal positioning within it.

Academia is full of deeply engrained structural inequalities. For example, medicine, law and business professors are paid higher salaries than are faculty in the arts and humanities, social work and education.

These inequalities exist in the publishing world as well: Many professors find it difficult to publish in the top journals in their field because their approach is not considered “mainstream.”

The recent publication, "Presumed Incompetent," highlights obstacles faced by (especially) female faculty of color in academia: Overcoming stereotypes; holding relatively heavy service loads, in part due to the fact that students flock to the few mentors who look and think like them; being judged more harshly or unfairly by students and colleagues; facing obstacles in the publishing process; and generally being told that they are “incompetent” for the work they do.

As a professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, I have thought about these structural inequalities for a long time.

In the context of institutional inequalities, there is a big difference between Sheryl Sandberg’s much-publicized argument that women need to “lean in,” which puts the burden on already-overworked, under-represented people to improve our lot, versus simply trying to “stand upright” or stay afloat in the face of heavy workloads and ongoing institutional inequalities.

RELATED: UC professor says stop telling me to lean in, isn't it enough that I'm standing upright?

Without adjusting for the work we already do, just the thought of Kristof’s idea that we need to work harder to be “public intellectuals” makes me tired.

But if we could change our thinking about success within academia, we could adjust our workloads accordingly and spend more time reaching out to broader publics.

Revised tenure and promotion criteria could reward work that reaches and impacts more people. I am not suggesting lowering standards, as opponents of tenure reform are quick to fixate on, but rather thinking differently about how research and academic disciplines are defined and valued.

Still, the longstanding inequalities we continue to face will never be adequately addressed without shifting the balance of power and representation on university campuses – that includes among administrators, faculty, staff and students.

To do this, we need buy-in from legislators, community leaders and the general public. We need support for knowledge production in the U.S., rather than scapegoating the pursuit of knowledge in the name of economic profit or increased regional labor supplies.

It’s a long road ahead, but recognizing and valuing the many forms of labor we do in our intellectual, local and international communities is an essential place to start.


Amy Lind, an expert on economic development and global governance, is Mary Ellen Heintz Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Cincinnati. She earned her PhD from Cornell University and has written and edited five books. She has held visiting professor positions in Ecuador, Bolivia and most recently, Switzerland.

An OpEd Project alum, she helped bring the OpEd Project to UC. Follow her on Twitter

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