Tenured Radical on norming, not-normals, and justice

Tenured Radical has a boffo deuce of posts this week:  First, in “More Annals of the Great Depression:  What Divides Us, and Why,” she writes about the fact that the budget-crisis hill some of her colleagues want to die on is the (astonishingly generous!) tuition benefit at her university, although it is only for children of faculty members.  She writes,

I would like to point out that the loose coalition of the willing that does not consider this cut unthinkable is made up of gay people and straight people; the coupled and the uncoupled; the married and the unmarried; those who have dependent (or formerly dependent) children and those who do not. I mention this because one of the first things people make sure to tell me in particular is that they are not homophobic (you know what? If you feel you have to say this, you are homophobic. I didn’t bring it up, you did.) Several of the kinder scolds suggested that we who were not with the program would understand this issue better if we actually had children and better understood the sacred bond between parent and child. The most ignorant argued that the childless were not excluded from this benefit, and could access it any time we liked by having, adopting or inheriting children. Of all the unspoken assumptions, perhaps the one best masking itself as intellectual common sense was that we who are childless at Zenith do have a moral and ethical commitment to our colleagues’ children, because it is these children who, as adult workers, will earn the professional wages to pay for our government benefits in retirement.

In other words, because I haven’t had children, regardless of how much I have paid into Social Security over the years, I will become a welfare queen in old age. And as I sign my government checks over to the BMW dealership and the grog shop, it will not be just any children who support me in the style to which I am now accustomed, but the children of my Zenith colleagues. . . .

No, they respond: nothing will do but an unlimited benefit reserved exclusively for the children of Zenith. 

Then, she followed up with another post, “Discriminating Tastes:  What People Who Are Not Normal Might Know That You Don’t Know,” in which she further elaborated on one of the points in the previous post, which is how many government and employer-sponsored benefits are crafted and doled out according to certain assumptions about what’s normal about people’s domestic arrangements, and that the normals win while the not-normals lose.  She writes, “[t]o my mind, one pernicious legacy of the social justice movements of the 1960s and 1970s is the notion that the opposite of invidious hierarchy is the equality of similarity,” and notes that one result of this is that people who point out injustices get accused (even by people who share the same basic political orientation) of creating or perpetuating pernicious divisions, rather than just pointing out that they exist.  (Oh yeah!  How many of you have been accused of this, when you point out that the wolf has once again eaten up poor old Granny and Red Riding Hood, and a friend or colleague suggests that Granny or Red Riding Hood might have chosen to eat the wolf instead, but they were foolish women who chose badly, and clearly there are no structural, dietary, or dental inequalities that might have contributed to this outcome.)

This presumption that equality = similarity has real implications for LGBTQ people, as it does for straights who aren’t “normal,” i.e., not-married, child-free, etc.:

Take marriage. One of the things that worries me about gay marriage is not that a lot of gay people long to be more similar to, or even appear to be exactly the same as, straight people. That has always been true in one way or another. It’s that gay marriage reinforces the falsehood that everyone has access to the same privileges if they are willing to make the “same” commitments. That marriage delivers only a simulacrum of similarity, even to straight people, and that there is no logical reason to make it a gateway to privilege, is a conversation that gay marriage has made it more difficult to have. Consequently, that marriage represents the pinnacle of ethical commitment to another person is an assumption by which the unmarried are stigmatized.

One might also point to loving commitments between children and adults, in which legal custody of a child is firmly viewed by most Americans as the greatest ethical commitment possible. Commitments outside that legal and/or biological relation, however deeply felt, are viewed as a degraded version of this bond. Again, let us look to gay and lesbian people who now parent. In this case, technical inclusion of non-traditional parents has allowed the institution itself to remain a socially, legally and economically privileged site. It used to be that gay people were all perceived as potential child molesters (that was homophobia); now we seem to all be, in the eyes of our friends, potential parents. This is not homophobia, but it’s not progressive either: it means that queer people who do not own children are now subject to similar stigma that child free heterosexuals are, and their relations to children they love are not taken seriously as an ethical commitment.

Go read them both.  I’ve always thought that tuition benefits restricted to children of faculty and staff members were too narrowly defined, and clearly discriminated against people who (for whatever reason) didn’t have children of their own.  Before coming to Baa Ram U., I worked at a Catholic university which employed a number of religious women and men, who for obvious reasons didn’t have children.  It also employed a lot of “normals” who were not-normal when it came to children.  (That is, they didn’t have them.)  I agreed with a colleague of mine, who was frustrated that she couldn’t bestow the favor of a college education on her dear nephew, whereas her colleagues with children could do this for an unlimited number of biological or adopted children. 

cleaversEmployee benefits should be available to all employees, regardless of their sexuality, the vows they might have taken (or not), or whether or not they have children.  If they’re not available equally, then they’re not employee benefits, they’re special rights.

And, on a personal note:  because the illustration that TR chose for her first post, “More Annals of the Great Depression,” of the Cleaver family from Leave it to Beaver (at right), I was horrified to discover that I am in fact married to Wally Cleaver.  (It’s true!  He looks a lot like Dr. Mister Historiann back when he was in high school!)

0 thoughts on “Tenured Radical on norming, not-normals, and justice

  1. I’m pretty happy that our institution offers tuition benefits to staff and faculty and that can be used for spouses, partners and children. (Probably parents, too — that I’ve never enquired about, but senior citizens also receive free tuition.) But there’s always more that we can do to make the situation fair and responsive.

    Our faculty and staff unions negotiate separately (they’re mostly on one year off-set cycles) so the benefits aren’t identical but they’re used as a benchmark for each other’s negotiations. Last year the staff union had the misfortune of negotiating in the worst financial crisis since the 90s, here, and had to fight hard to just stay in place.

    Of course, the other issue about equity between faculty and staff is that most staff positions are salary capped far, far, far below the faculty ceilings. Our department secretary has been working here longer than I have and can only make about 1/3 of what I can. Young staffers in some more technical areas come in with B.A. and M.A. degrees and yet will not go over half of my salary. When they’re cut back in times of austerity, with furloughs or the like, the percentages might be the same but the effect of cutting when you’re already just getting by.


  2. I think it’s an interesting assumption that faculty who lose the tuition benefit would otherwise be able to pay the tuition at their own university.

    Hubby used to work at a place with high tuition and a tuition benefit. I know we wouldn’t be able to afford their tuition — nor would we recommend anybody take out loans to do so.

    So, I’m not sure how cutting the tuition benefit saves / brings in more money. Unless the university is highly selective, it’s probable that there is room for all qualified applicants — thus, a faculty children who don’t pay tuition aren’t taking a seat from someone who would have paid.

    All that being said — I agree with your point that tuition benefits should be equally accessible to all. In fact, if a single person without family was both an employee and wanted to take courses in a professional school, they should be permitted to do so. Maybe the most fair way to do it is to have a limit on the total tuition dollars that will be waived — and permit that dollar amount to be used by the employee as they see necessary.


  3. This is an issue that I’ve thought a lot about. My school doesn’t offer tuition benefits, but I know that many schools do, and often within a largish reciprocity network (e.g., children of Amherst faculty have a tuition benefit for all the Five Colleges, or some such). But I’m a loving spinster auntie by choice, and would dearly love to be able to give back to my working-class family by providing a way for my niece and nephew to attend college when their parents probably won’t be able to afford it.

    I just think this would be a nice thing to do, and a way to value the families of those of us who don’t marry and/or have children of our own. Many in that category, I might add, are women or LGBT, so it would do much to extend a benefit to groups that university administrations make much noise about wanting to recruit and retain.

    (Apologies for the tortured syntax in that last sentence.)


  4. Philosopher P.: I don’t assume that faculty would be able to afford tuition without the benefit. (Did TR say that?) Moreover, at TR’s uni, they’re not talking about discontinuing the benefit, they’re just considering not increasing it at the same rate! For all the reasons you suggest, it’s a benefit that doesn’t probably cost the uni all that much–so why not distribute it in an equitable fashion?

    Janice’s uni might be a good model to study, although her uni still privileges family/domestic relationships. Why not make a tuition credit benefit work like a frequent flyer program? People can cash in their “miles” for their own travel, or give them to someone else a family member, a friend, or a complete stranger, if they want to. That way, Notorious could cash them in for her niece/s or nephews, and people who are in Big Brothers/Big Sisters could bestow them on their “little sibling,” parishoners could donate them to a child in their church, etc.


  5. Both of TR’s posts are spot on. OPU does not offer a tuition benefit, but it does offer several extra time benefits that only are available to parents with minor children. I know I’ve written this in previous posts, but children are not the only family members who sometimes need extra care and attention. Workers may also need to devote significant time to seriously ill spouses, ailing parents, and the like. I have long been disgusted by the rhetoric that equates “family” with “children.” SweetCliffie and I are a family, too — as is TR and her partner, or Notorious as a singleton. “Family” need not be childed, hetero, or even plural in number.

    If we DID have a tuition benefit, I’d love to be able to give it to the youngest member of my circus, a formerly-homeless teen, now in her early 20s, who probably has “income” below the poverty line. Not a relation, but “family” to me.


  6. I wonder if the tuition credit benefit banks on a certain percentage of the faculty/staff *not* using it, which helps make it feasible. (I’m thinking about Historiann’s idea about “miles”. Although expanding the program doesn’t mean that the use of it would necessarily expand exponentially.)

    Honestly, in this day and age, this not an issue I can get passionate about – I mean, if my uni had this benefit and wanted to get rid of it, I’d be fine with that. It’s a nice benefit (although I agree with H. and TR that it doesn’t really work the way it’s currently structured), though the only place I’ve personally encountered that had it was my PhD uni – a posh private uni where all full professors make a *minimum* of $150k; so it always made me roll my eyes a bit, these wealthy folks getting a free ride while children of working class parents were taking out loans and struggling. (I know that’s not necessarily the only scenario.) Now if it applied to staff as well that might be different.

    I’m also wondering (honestly wondering, working it out through in my mind) what I think about every benefit having to be applicable to every person in order to be equitable and nondiscriminatory. While Family leave is theoretically open to everyone, most people who don’t have children never use it. If a uni has paid “family” leave (unlike my own) then that obviously wouldn’t apply to people who don’t have children and never have an ill partner/parent to care for. I get TR’s point about forced normalization of certain social forms and why that’s a problem. But I also worry about devolving into one of those “my kid doesn’t go to public school/ I don’t have a child, I shouldn’t have to pay for it” situations. (Not that I think that’s TR’s point – I’m thinking about the discourse being picked up and used by those who hate benefits/ programs generally.) Perhaps that’s a false analogy, and I’m happy told so, since I’m really just working through this right now.

    Of course thinking about it just a bit further, all the idiocies and injustices (or most of them) in the US benefits system generally result from benefits being stingy and dolled out by employers. Like, the issue of partner health benefits for nonmarried people is a huge issue/ problem, as well as the “tax credit” for being married. if we all had universal health care, and filed taxes separately (and if universities were *affordable* in the first place) it would make huge strides in stripping marital privilege of its force. I know martial/ family privilege is deeply ingrained socially and culturally, as well as economically, but removing the economic could help loosen the rest. Our unbridled capitalist system has created a world that really ossifies these heteronomative mandates.


  7. My partner is taking advantage of our university system’s “staff rate” tuition. The rate is 30% the resident UG tuition and we are taxed on the 70% imputed value. (Similarly, we are taxed on the imputed value of his health benefit.) As the name suggests, the rate is available to all staff working 0.5 FTE or more and may be used at any university in the system. I see this as a demonstration that professional development is a university value.

    The benefit can be transferred to *one* “family” member each term. This includes anybody you claim as a dependent for tax purposes, as well as domestic partners and their tax dependents. I wish we could transfer it more widely. The one-per-term limit would seem to address the potential for abuse.

    Thinking more generally, my experience working in the federal government was that employees could transfer leave benefits among themselves and did so, usually to help people who needed extra leave to attend to family issues. It could have been transferred for anything though. The total number of leave days across the institution didn’t change so the employer could budget for them and had little motivation to care about how the days were used. This type of policy de facto broadens the definition of leave.


  8. I wonder if the tuition credit benefit banks on a certain percentage of the faculty/staff *not* using it, which helps make it feasible.

    I’m pretty sure that’s the case, here and in a lot of places. Benefits that don’t get claimed (by workers who don’t have children or spouses, or who send their children elsewhere for university, etc.) enable the rest of those who do use the benefit to get it at full value. And I know my university would scream if someone started asking for the tuition benefit as an amount they could apply against tuition costs at one of the local colleges or at another university, elsewhere.

    Such programs are designed around the idea that they’ll rarely be fully used. And when they’re used at even a moderately-increased amount above expectations, that’s when the financial squeeze starts to be felt. The actuaries raise the alert and meetings are called. Heaven knows when we had a couple of faculty members go on long-term disability, our rates for that insurance rose to be among the highest in the province. So we kept the coverage, but at a greatly increased price for all faculty members.

    Talking about the “pool” model of benefits into which you can dip for various needs. We do have more freedom on our extended medical benefits with a set amount for insured individual that can be spent on chiropractic care, orthodontics or whatever in a year rather than the old system that allowed for $XXX every year or two years for ABC benefit. But I can’t bring in my sister, say, for anything nor could one of my colleagues transfer tuition to a niece or nephew. The benefits are only available for registered members on the insurance plan.


  9. I think the hardest thing for me to learn in my own personal program of anti-racism/homophobia training was that bit about how equality did not equal similarity. But we are really bad about thinking about how to be equal and different.


  10. I read the original post(s) over at the TR site, and have been thinking about them. Tuition benefits for faculty and staff are usually extended to partners and children, as well as to the faculty members themselves. That last might sound, um, weird, since presumably we’re all PhD-ed up, or nearly so. But I’ve used that benefit here to take on an additional foreign language on the university’s dime – to effectively re-train my self for a new research project. I think the benefit is a great thing, and, for me, it has nothing to do with kids. In short, I’m having a hard time conceptualizing this as an “us vs. them” issue.

    I see the bigger point, though. I’m just struggling to snap it into sharper focus beyond Zenith Univ.

    Another issue, of course, is that the concept of “family” need not be so static here, as several have noted below the post. Many institutions have really pushed to expand their thinking on this front.


  11. No question that the tuition benefit is a really poor choice as budgetary sacred cow. I do wonder — are these colleagues talking about bestowing it on a favorite niece or nephew, ponying up to pay for that tuition out of pocket for them instead? (I don’t think it’s an argument against having that option as part of the benefit, but still — easy to talk the talk in its absence and when it wouldn’t actually personally cost anything).

    I find talking about ‘owning’ children (TR’s phrase, not yours) really, really crass. People /= objects.


  12. In fact the more I think about it the more it bothers me. Same objection as to “I’m not homophobic, but….” “I’m not anti-children or family, even if I use the language of slavery.”


  13. I should add, before I skip out, that the benefit here in the Hoosier state is open to staff, and not just their children. And, as a minor administrator here, I’ve watched several staff members take courses in the summers and during the school year to work towards their BA.

    Would I be willing to fight for this? Yes, absolutely. But do I think of it as a hetero-normative feature of the campus? Nope.


  14. Our uni offers half off 6 hours of tuition (not fees) each semester for staff and faculty only (not children or partners).

    Works OK — I’d prefer it were a sliding scale (the less you make the less you pay) but at least everyone is entitled.


  15. Lance–I don’t think TR is opposed to tuition benefits, just to the particular way that they’re distributed at Zenith, and the heteronormative terms on which they’re being defended by the “normals.” As I hoped to suggest in my post, there is more than one way to be “queer,” and Catholic religious in this country where Protestant is “normal” have always been defined as gender/sex queer (if not as sexual deviants.)

    onebad: let’s not get sucked into debates over one word. We’ve had them here at this blog–“breeder” and “tool,” just to give two examples–and they’re not that interesting to me because they don’t require engagement with the larger points of an issue. It’s easy to argue about because everyone can have an opinion as to whether one word is a “bad” word or not, whether or not they’ve read the post or have given any thought at all to the larger issues at stake, so a lot of people get really invested in arguing about one word–and the larger issue gets lost.

    I agree with you that TR’s use of the word “own” is provocative–but my guess is that she’s trying to make a point about the ways in which her colleagues defending the current tuition benefit imagine their relationship with their children. You’re free not to like it, of course, but I think she chose to use that word in the service of making a larger point, which is that heterosexualists who are parents frequently use their children as a pretext for making grand moral arguments that maybe aren’t all that grand or moral. (I don’t want to put words in her mouth, and I could be wrong about this, but that’s how I took it.)


  16. Fair enough. I did think afterwards that I was edging too closely toward a ‘tone’ argument for my own taste.

    Following on Lance’s comment re staff, is it not standard for tuition benefit to apply to them (as well as their family members) as well? It never occurred to me that it wouldn’t, and if not, that’s shockingly unfair as well.


  17. onebad, I don’t think it applies to staff, but TR would have to have the final word on that. She points out later in the comments on the first post that Zenith isn’t proposing doing away with the tuition benefit for children–it is rather just “proposing to scale back the increase temporarily.”


  18. I can really understand why TR feels the way she feels, but I wonder if there isn’t some misattribution about the passionate defense by faculty parents of the tuition benefit. I kind of doubt that at a place like Zenith it is grounded in “don’t touch my hetero privilege!!!!!!”. I wonder, instead, if it is rooted in that weird and shocking moment of revelation that you don’t, exactly, belong to the social class that your students do: the moment when you realize you can’t afford to send your own kids to the kind of college your students attend. I’m not saying, oh tragedee — there are many sadder kinds of class-anguish over which we can shed our saltiest tears.

    but this one specifically affects both (1) profs who are parents and (2) teaching. I teach at a public university, but I know if I taught at most private ones (other than the very cushy elites that pay profs top dollah) I would — if I had kids, which I don’t — NEVER be able to send my own kids to my own workplace on my own probable salary.

    And, you know, that probably would affect how I felt about all the time I devote to students. At a public uni, it’s great; you really do feel like a servant of the people. That’s a great feeling, and pretty different (I’m guessing) from feeling like a servant of the gentry.

    This class imbalance is less acutely visible to non-parents; the difference in relative privilege is not as directly comparable across a 20-something versus a 50-something lifestyle (and, obvy, everyone in this scenario enjoys tons of privilege). but comparing the options of your own 18 year old child to those of the 18 year old young people you teach and finding them wanting probably does generate some bad juju. I’m not saying a tuition benefit is the best answer to this situation, but short of ¡The Revolution! I think it might be doing some useful patchwork in terms of faculty-student relations, and this might explain some of the “you’ll pry it out of my cold dead hands” reaction TR is seeing.


  19. I guess my point was simply that if Zenith limits such things to the children of faculty, then the institution is itself outside of normal practice, or might be. Or if faculty themselves only talk about it that way, then the same is true. Neither would be surprising, given what Zenith is. But they would be *impossible* here.


  20. Kathleen, I think you’re right that class envy may be part of what’s going on. I especially liked this part of your comment: “At a public uni, it’s great; you really do feel like a servant of the people. That’s a great feeling, and pretty different (I’m guessing) from feeling like a servant of the gentry.”

    TR gets at this in the first post linked above, when she writes, “Furthermore, Cold War heterosexual parenting was articulated as service to the state, supported by an elaborate series of tax deductions, workplace benefits and enhanced public education designed to help (white) families become and remain middle-class. “Benefits” are part of that structure, even though we have come to think of them as something we are owed, separate from salary, because we so depend on them to remain middle class.”

    Lance–I hear you. I’m at a uni at which the faculty and staff have the same (modest) benefit to bestow on (nuclear) family members. I’m not sure about domestic partners.


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