Forget the Footnotes

English professors

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A friend of mine at Oxbridge University points out that next to all the professors in her department are English. ‘Nothing strange about that,’ I argued. ‘This is England after all!’ ‘OK, fair enough,’ she retorted, ‘but the weird thing is that the vast majority of non-professors in the faculty are foreigners. Foreigners are teaching but they don’t get promoted.’

I took another look at my own department and I suddenly saw it in a new light. It lists 49 people as full-time academic staff, including tutorial fellows and lecturers on temporary contracts. Of these 16 are professors. 14 out of whom are English, two are American. Of the 33 staff members who are not professors, 8 are English, 25 are foreigners. That is, among the English there are 14 professors to 8 non-professors, and among the non-English there are 25 non-professors to 2 professor. 64 percent of the English are professors but only 7 percent of the foreigners.

I wonder why there is this difference? Why is it that the English keep the professorships for themselves? It looks an awful lot like the glass-ceiling that keeps women from advancing in their careers. (Speaking of which, only two out of the 16 professors in my department are women!).

One obvious explanation is that the English are smarter than the foreigners and that this is why they go further in their careers. Another possible explanation is that the English establishment, here as elsewhere, rely on imported, exploited, foreign labour to do the dirty work for them. A third explanation is generational. It takes time after all to make professor. If more English staff was hired, say 10 years ago, then more of them would be professors today. On the other hand, it could be that the foreigners quit and go elsewhere — return home — since they feel that their careers are blocked.

My sociological explanation is that the professoriate in any university constitutes a club. As all clubs they are ruled not primarily by intellectual principles but instead by social psychological. Above all it is important to make sure that no one rocks the boat. This is difficult to assure since, famously, all professors always are at each other’s throats. This is why it is important only to include people who are like the already existing club members. Picking people with an Oxbridge background assures that a semblance of peace and order is maintained. It is at Oxford and Cambridge after all that you learn the 101 of gently nodding while ferociously stabbing each other in the back.

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