By Rudolph H. Weingartner
For many right-thinking people—that is to say, liberals—equal pay for equal work has always been a goal to be achieved. While this aspiration pertained particularly to women, who once were very far from getting the same compensation as men and have yet to reach parity, it applied, as well, to discrimination that is based on race, religion, national origin, disability or age. The objective of reaching equality is an expression of a piece of American ideology that wants us to stand out as a classless society or at least to come closer than Old Europe, not to mention the lands of the Middle East. And since we are talking about economic criteria, this goal has a genuine resemblance to Karl Marx’s notion of a classless society, though it would be best to keep quiet about that, since it might scare off potential friends of the cause.
Progress is being made. Last January, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. The law makes it easier to sue a company for pay discrimination and in that way discourages such bias in the first place. In another part of the forest, however, there is backsliding. I shall be pointing to practices, moreover, that cannot be alleviated by Congressional bills, signed by the Chief Executive. In the second edition of my Fitting Form to Function: A Primer on the Organization of Academic Institutions [Rowman & Littlefield, 2011], I give a brief deploring account of the vast increase of the use of adjuncts, part timers, and full time lecturers to teach students that the professoriate used to teach. These non-regulars, can never attain the stability of employment that tenured faculty enjoy nor are they remotely compensated at the same level as the so-called “regular” faculty.
You might say the work they do is not equal to that of the (proportionately) shrinking regular faculty and, indeed, for some of the regulars this would indeed be true. But many others, with a small number of courses to teach, engaged in research that is trivial that seldom brings beads of sweat to their brows. On the other hand, the teaching load of the irregulars is large, calling for multiple preparations and the ministering to—that is testing, grading, advising—myriads of students and poorly paid. Two classes of faculty: one markedly more favored than the other.
And now this insidious two-class system is infecting the world of lawyers. An account in The New York Times of May 24, 2011, “At Well-Paying Law Firms, a Low-Paid Corner” describes an expanding practice very similar to the one that has taken hold of the world of post-secondary education. Besides hiring attorneys who stand a chance of becoming partners of the firm (and are generously paid, accordingly), other “fullfledged,” competent lawyers are being hired, earning “less than half the pay of their counterparts, “doing pretty high-level work — writing briefs, visiting client sites, prepping witnesses for hearings.” Law firms used to be composed of two classes: partners and aspiring partners—a healthy division, like that of tenured professors and those on tenure-track. Healthy, because ability and energy came close to assuring “promotion” from the lower to the higher class.
What we are now seeing both in the world of higher education and in the legal establishment is the creation of inferior and superior classes with as much chance of moving upward as in medieval times, a serf had the potential of becoming a knight. Are these signs that we are sliding back into the Middle Ages?
Rudolph H. Weingartner is Emeritus of Philosophy, University of Pittsburgh and the author of Fitting Form to Function: A Primer on the Organization of Academic Institutions: Second Edition.