Sartorial Choices for Academics

Posted in opinion pages by Editor on September 10, 2010

From the Editor

With the beginning of a new academic year and a new round of attacks on the tenure system, we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised that the question of how professors should dress surfaces once more (older discussion can be found here). Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus in their book, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It (recently reviewed in The New York Times) use clothes as a shorthand for what they see as larger problems in the system:

Say goodbye to Mr. Chips with his tattered tweed jacket; today’s senior professors can afford Marc Jacobs.

Katrina Gulliver, who works on urban identity in colonial cities, ca. 1500-1900, responds to Hacker and Dreifus, The New York Times review, and general assumptions that professors shouldn’t look overly fashionable — or even professional (a Research Fellow at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, Gulliver hosts the podcasts, Cities in History; her website is especially useful for anyone interested in historians who Tweet, Twitterstorians).

For all the ways I find myself nodding in agreement with Gulliver’s critique of Hacker and Dreifus, it doesn’t quite match my own feelings: apart from the question of whether academics should dress fashionably, the vast majority of my colleagues (at various institutions across North America) simply are not, in fact, sporting Marc Jacobs. Period. I imagine it stems from a lack of interest and a lack of resources, but whatever the reasons, the reference by Hacker and Dreifus seems to be a straw man for the sake of rhetorical flourish. Regardless, it’s interesting that once again fashion serves as a means of critiquing, not establishing academic credibility. We’ve heard this refrain before. It’s probably safe to bet that we’ll hear it again.

-Craig Hanson

3 Responses

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  1. Claudia Dreifus said, on September 10, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    We write that today’s senior professors CAN afford Marc Jacobs, not that they wear him. Our point, to repeat the obvious, is that professors at the top of the system, really do quite well.

    We have a website. http://www.highereducationquestionmark.com and we invite your thoughts and ideas.

    • Editor said, on September 10, 2010 at 2:37 pm

      Thanks to Ms. Dreifus for the reply. I should, in turn, make clear that I was in no way offering a review of the book (which I haven’t read, though I did hear Andrew Hacker discussing it on The Diane Rehm Show a couple of weeks ago).

      Instead, I was simply observing that it’s interesting (to me at least) that one way of criticizing the current system of higher education is to invoke a designer label of clothing. I’m not sure I grasp the distinction now made between the ability to afford something and the actual practice of buying it (lots of other high-end goods that professors don’t routinely buy could just as easily have been inserted into the sentence if that were the case). Whether intentional or not, the choice made by the authors has the effect of casting “senior professors” as concerned with sartorial matters to the detriment of America’s higher education. It’s that rhetorical move that I was trying to emphasize.

      And yes, I would agree that “professors at the top of the system really do quite well” (I think that’s true of most professions in the United States, certainly professions that require 10-12 years of education beyond high school). By definition, however, the top is a relatively small minority of people teaching in American colleges and universities (everyone is not at the top), and plenty of even “senior professors” rank further down the scale.


  2. Claudia Dreifus said, on September 10, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    From the book you haven’t read: “All in all, the academy isn’t poverty row, as averages for full professors show. Thus, there are generous salaries at Northwestern ($161,800) and Emory ($153,400). But second-tier public institutions like the University of Delaware ($130,000) and Michigan State ($121,900) aren’t far behind. What we found interesting was that many independent colleges are also in this league. Full professors at Bates now average $113.400, at Occidental they get $111,100 and at Grinnell it’s $113,100.”

    As a former union organizer and someone who’s been adjuncting since 1997, I am quite aware that there are lots of folk at universities making far less. Adjuncts usually earn some between $2,000 and $3,000 a course. Where’s the outrage on that?

    Even at the unionized City University in New York, adjuncts earn four grand and change. Whereas the senior professors–and there are more of them than you’d think -take home six figures. In fact, at many schools, the senior professors gobble up the major share of the instructional pie.

    You may not like our metaphor, but our point is that the numbers are quite different from the stereotype.

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