image: “Bloody Heart” by Sarah, description: two pale hands making a heart shape and splattered with blood

The Truth About Colleges and Universities

If you’re applying to college in the US or your kid is, you should read this. Especially if you’re not white.

I’m going to be called bitter for publishing this, but I write it optimistically as a Black woman postdoctoral researcher in particle and cosmology theory who is plunging into her second round of faculty applications in a country that has never had a Black woman theoretical cosmologist on a college or university faculty. So, some part of me believes that there is something redeeming about academia, or at the very least about the act of learning about the universe, sufficiently that I’m still here, writing this after I spent hours today worrying about Bose-Einstein condensates.

First of all, I can’t say more than that because I’m worried someone will steal my idea and rather than trying to work with me on it, come up with their own solution and publish it before me. So the first thing you should know is that academics are brutal, and academia encourages brutality.

Second of all, research-intensive institutions — universities — ones that offer lots of PhD programs? When hiring tenure-track faculty, some of them take teaching skills and interest into account, but it’s a very distant second behind how many papers you put out, how much money you bring in, and what your peers think of you. This sounds great in university press releases, but frankly, it’s fucking fuckshit for the undergraduates. Whether your professor is any good at teaching you is basically a crapshoot.

Third of all, those people you think are professors? A lot of them — 75% of them — are actually part-time lecturers aka contingent faculty aka adjuncts who are possibly barely making enough money to pay rent and are also possibly on welfare. That’s how little these institutions care about your education, undergrads. Your teachers are on welfare and have zero prospects of long-term employment and job security.

Fourth of all, are you a person of color, disabled, queer, and/or trans? Well then, no one hired professors out of consideration for your needs. Except minority-serving institutions, which are still often not great for queer or trans people. But, the end. Almost no institution, teaching-intensive, research-intensive, does much more than pay lip service to ensuring the faculty reflect the people of color they seek to recruit. Even when they hire someone from a very underrepresented minority, usually one of two scenarios are probable: the person is either totally inexperienced and/or disinterested in mentoring students from marginalized backgrounds, or they are going to get screwed when they come up for tenure because universities like it when people of color do that service, but fuck if they are going to reward them for it.

Someone is muttering under their breath that at least Asian students have it good because there are so many Asian faculty. To that person: there’s a difference between Asian and Asian American. And Asian American women faculty are the least likely ethno-gender group to reach seniority as faculty.

Moving on.

Fifth of all, even when an institution has “done a good thing” and hired a bunch of white women for faculty positions? They’ve probably screwed them over on startup money to help get their research under way. So, just know, your institution is probably fucking its women faculty over.

Sixth of all, if you’re at a research-intensive institution, you probably have grad students as teaching assistants who are underpaid and overworked and disproportionately likely to be feeling suicidal and depressed due to their experiences in grad school. Also, the university probably spent a lot of money trying to stop them from unionizing so they could fight for better conditions and maybe if they are HARVARD worked very hard to rig the unionization vote.

Seventh of all, the university is doing a lot of fundraising and keeps hiring administrators to focus on diversity and spending money on diversity plans, but still somehow pays administrators a lot of money but has all of these employees at or near the poverty line (including the janitors who make sure that the campus doesn’t stink to high hell and the dining workers who keep students from starving). But importantly, those administrators have leaned into high salaries, so let the impoverished educators eat free campus museum passes. (As former Harvard President Neil Rudenstine famously once essentially suggested.)

Eighth of all, student to faculty ratios are going through the roof because, yeah, too much money spent on admins, not enough on faculty. So, hopefully if you’re at a research-intensive institution, you weren’t hoping for faculty and teaching assistants who know who the hell you are.

Ninth of all, postdocs (like me) are treated pretty badly and are fundamental to the productivity of research-intensive institutions, but they’re somewhere working 80 hours a week so you’ve probably never met one. Nevermind. There were only eight points.

Nu. I’m not saying don’t go to college or don’t send your kid to college. All I’m saying is have zero delusions about what these institutions are up to. When you think about that second mortgage or whatever horrible financial choice you have to make in order for your kid to go to college, know that the $60,000/year is going to an institution that is subsidizing your kid’s education with publicly funded welfare. The truth is, A LOT of admin, faculty, grad students, and postdocs DO care immensely about education and student well-being. Hopefully you will come into contact with at least some of those people. (Probably mostly people without tenure/job stability, possibly people not getting paid to care and getting screwed over professionally for caring, but I digress.)

So yeah, I’m feeling pretty awesome about job applications. I’m sure this blog entry will help because faculty will see that I am scientifically committed to the truth and want to make universities better. 😊