Ivory Tower?

中国日报网 2017-06-23 11:07



Ivory Tower?Reader question:

Please explain this sentence, particularly “Ivory Tower”: While the academy is still dominated by men, the number of women in the Ivory Tower is increasing rapidly.

My comments:

In other words, the number of women teachers and professors in universities and colleges are increasing rapidly, even though they’re still outnumbered by male teachers – and the gap remains big.

The Ivory Tower is synonymous with schools and academies, where people deal with intellectual work rather than working hard just to be able to pay the bills in the real world.

The question is, why “Ivory Tower”, literally a tower built with ivory (the hard white substance made from tusks of the elephant) gets to be associated with life as an academic?

The short answer is, I guess, that ivory is white, pure, strong and precious. Shielded within such a tower or house, one is insulated from the harsh, tough and often cruel realities of the outside world. Within the warm and comfortable Ivory Tower, one reads, thinks, drinks tea or wine and, when he or she feels like it, writes a lecture on various topics, including one on how to run the world.

That does sound like the good life of a rich, leisurely university professor, doesn’t it?

Well, that is the short answer. The long answer to how and why the Ivory Tower became synonymous with academic life is, well, long, convoluted and kind of confusing, so I’m not delving into it. “The first mention of ivory towers”, suffice it to say, “is in the Bible, Song of Solomon 7:4 (King James Version): Thy neck is as a tower of ivory” (Phrases.org.uk).

“From the 19th century,” suffice it to add, “it has been used to designate an environment of intellectual pursuit disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life.” (Wikipedia)

And, now, a few media examples to give us an idea of what life in the Ivory Tower feels like today:

1. You’ve probably heard the old stereotypes about professors in their ivory tower lecturing about Kafka while clad in a tweed jacket. But for many professors today, the reality is quite different: being so poorly paid and treated, that they’re more likely to be found bargain-hunting at day-old bread stores. This is academia in 2014.

“The most shocking thing is that many of us don’t even earn the federal minimum wage,” said Miranda Merklein, an adjunct professor from Santa Fe who started teaching in 2008. “Our students didn’t know that professors with PhDs aren’t even earning as much as an entry-level fast food worker. We’re not calling for the $15 minimum wage. We don’t even make minimum wage. And we have no benefits and no job security.”

Over three quarters of college professors are adjunct. Legally, adjunct positions are part-time, at-will employment. Universities pay adjunct professors by the course, anywhere between $1,000 to $5,000. So if a professor teaches three courses in both the fall and spring semesters at a rate of $3000 per course, they’ll make $18,000 dollars. The average full-time barista makes the same yearly wage. However, a full-time adjunct works more than 40 hours a week. They’re not paid for most of those hours.

“If it’s a three credit course, you’re paid for your time in the classroom only,” said Merklein. “So everything else you do is by donation. If you hold office hours, those you’re doing for free. Your grading you do for free. … Anything we do with the student where we sit down and explain what happened when the student was absent, that’s also free labor. Some would call it wage theft because these are things we have to do in order to keep our jobs. We have to do things we’re not getting paid for. It’s not optional.”

Merklein was far from the only professor with this problem.

“It can be a tremendous amount of work,” said Alex Kudera. Kudera started teaching in 1996 and is the author of a novel about adjunct professorship, “Fight For Your Long Day.” “When I was an adjunct, I didn’t have a social life. It’s basically just work all the time. You plan your weekend around the fact that you’re going to be doing work Saturday and Sunday — typically grading papers, which is emotionally exhausting. The grading can be tedious but at least it’s a private thing. It’s basically 5-10 hours a day for every day of the week.”

One professor from Indiana who spoke to Salon preferred to remain anonymous. “At some point early in my adjunct career, I broke down my pay hourly. I figured out that I was making under minimum wage and then I stopped thinking about it,” he said. “I can’t speak for everyone, but I essentially design my own courses. And sometimes I don’t find out how many courses I’m going to be teaching until maybe Thursday and they start Monday. … So I have to develop a course, and it’s been the case where one summer I taught English 102 where the course was literally dropped in my lap three days before it started and I had to develop it entirely from scratch. It didn’t even have a text book. That was three 16-hour days in a row developing a syllabus. … You’re expected to be in contact with students constantly. You have to be available to them all the time. You’re expected to respond to emails generally within 24 hours. I’m always on-call. And it’s one of my favorite parts of my job, I don’t regret it, but if you factored those on-call hours in, that’d be the end of it. I’d be making 50 cents an hour.”

Being financially secure and teaching at an institute of higher education are almost mutually exclusive, even among professors who are able to teach the maximum amount of courses each semester. Thus, more than half of adjunct professors in the United States seek a second job. Not all professors can find additional employment. An advanced degree slams most doors shut and opens a handful by the narrowest crack.

Nathaniel Oliver taught as an adjunct for four years in Alabama. He received $12,000 a year during his time teaching.

“You fall in this trap where you may be working for less than you would be at a place that pays minimum wage yet you can’t get the minimum wage jobs because of your education,” Oliver said.

Academia’s tower might be ivory but it casts an obsidian shadow. Oliver was one of many professors trapped in the oxymoronic life of pedantic destitution. Some professors in his situation became homeless. Oliver was “fortunate” enough to only require food stamps, a fact of life for many adjuncts.

“It’s completely insane,” he said. “And this isn’t happening just to me. More and more people are doing it.”

“We have food stamps,” said the anonymous adjunct from Indiana. “We wouldn’t be able to survive without them.”

- Professors on food stamps: The shocking true story of academia in 2014, Salon.com, September 21, 2014.

2. The recent grand jury decision to not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Michael Brown resulted in protests across the country for those disappointed with the outcome. Of course for those who believe Wilson’s actions were justified the response was slightly different. There are those, like Ted Nugent, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who chose to react with all the class of an Anthony Weiner Twitter photo. Some, like Sean Hannity, took the opportunity to blame President Obama for inciting violence and heightening racial tensions. Others have decided to use their victory lap as a way to “educate” the African American community.

It is this last category of people that are the most frustrating. They avoided the outlandish talking points offered up by the classic attention hogs but still managed to prove they were completely out of touch with reality. For example, longtime Fox News contributor Cal Thomas opined that the “real problem” for the African American community is that they have “an attitude of victimhood.”


The reality is that African Americans and liberals don’t hold a monopoly on victim mentality. The only difference is that to conservatives when a liberal claims something is unfair they are playing the victim while when a conservative claims the same it is a fact that proves liberals are ruining this great country.

The “real problem” with Ferguson, New York, Cleveland or any other city where the police have executed black males is not “an attitude of victimhood.” No, the real problem is the group who sit in their ivory tower doling out sage advice to people they clearly don’t understand about a situation they have no experience with that does nothing but increase the ever widening gap in race relations. Because pretending to know what it’s like to be black in America isn’t even remotely close to actually being black in America.

- White Ignorance at the Core of Racial Tensions, HuffingtonPost.com, Febuary 7, 2015.

3. Ms Cheli Cresswell’s last meeting with her assessors was odd. Her assessors, renowned scholars at the University of Oxford, were eager to discuss with her the scientific papers she ought to write in order to obtain her doctorate. However, Ms Cresswell only wanted to talk about her app idea. It would let citizen scientists map stories about human-elephant interactions from online sources. This visualisation would then aid communities and environmentalists in developing more targeted conservation strategies. She hopes this app will be an integral part of her doctoral thesis. Her assessors did not get it.

Ms Cresswell is a prime example of an academic entrepreneur. More and more policymakers understand that academic entrepreneurs are a university’s most valuable asset. Indeed, many British universities now need to measure spin-offs per 100 students and staff. After all, newly founded firms account for nearly all net new job creation, according to studies of the Kauffman Foundation. Academics (directly) contribute little to this job creation on average. According to one estimate from Sweden, less than one in 100 scholars per year quit academia to become full-time entrepreneurs. But up to 16 per cent of academics may run a part-time business which they founded. Several universities are already entrepreneurial. For instance, the Cambridge Science Park, Europe's longest-serving and largest centre for commercial research, at the University of Cambridge counts 1,400 companies and 40,000 jobs. Alumni from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created 25,800 companies employing 3.3 million people.

These figures indicate that many associate academic entrepreneurship with the natural sciences or computer science. However, we believe that broader conceptualisation and understanding are essential. Indeed, academic entrepreneurship is more than commercial spin-offs, run by patent-holding scientists.

Academic entrepreneurs can be chemists, computer scientists, engineers, economists, geographers, anthropologists or even historians. To us, academic entrepreneurs are those who apply their scholarly knowledge in commercial or non-commercial ventures in order to improve the world we live in. As Confucius said some 2 ½ millennia ago already: “The essence of knowledge is, having it, to apply it.”


A debate is under way these days regarding the relationship of science and society. We strongly believe that the status quo is insufficient and even counterproductive in the long-run. A more diversified approach to assess a scholar’s full performance is needed. Universities - allegedly hosting many of the world’s most talented thinkers - ought to be bursting with ideas for innovative commercial and non-commercial ventures which, if implemented, would contribute to countries’ social and economic development.

Many want academics to be thought leaders and to unleash the creativity of academic entrepreneurs. In private conversations, those leading academic institutions in Europe, Asia and beyond acknowledge that the system needs to change. Similarly, many policymakers argue they would be determined to break the ivory tower. We believe there is nothing wrong with academics living in the ivory tower, but this must not be their only place of residence.

Ms Cresswell’s assessors at the University of Oxford eventually also accepted that she would continue developing her app. Change is indeed happening, but at a snail’s pace. This has to be accelerated very significantly.

- The tough life of an academic entrepreneur, StraitsTimes.com, March 3, 2016.


About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

(作者:张欣 编辑:丹妮)

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