Friday, April 23, 2004

Unmarried professors are outsiders in the Ozzie and Harriet world of academe

A story published in the April 23 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that

Bella M. DePaulo remembers the semester at the University of Virginia when she was asked to teach a night class because the time was inconvenient for her married colleagues. She recalls the Thursday evening she wound up taking a job candidate to dinner alone because everyone else in her department had family obligations.

Single professors frequently experience such slights, says Ms. DePaulo, a visiting professor of psychology on the University of California's campus here who does research on discrimination against single people.

Particularly unfair, she says, are the perks that some universities offer to married professors, but that do not apply to single professors, like hefty tuition discounts for children of faculty members.

Whenever Ms. DePaulo has pointed out that single professors without kids receive nothing comparable, her married colleagues have looked at her as if she's "antifamily values," she says. "At a time when we are all so familiar with the antics of the old boys' club, so many people seem so oblivious to a similar kind of club -- the couples' club."

While the proportion of single people in the country has surged over the past few decades, academe remains a very coupled universe. Three-quarters of faculty members at all two- and four-year colleges are married, compared with just 57 percent of adults nationwide. The dearth of single professors makes those who are unwed feel like outsiders. And the up-or-out nature of tenure makes working in academe a risky option for single people, who do not have a spouse to fall back on -- emotionally or financially -- if their tenure bids fail.

"Single people are the last underrepresented minority," says Alice Bach, an associate professor of religion, who is the only single woman in her department at Case Western Reserve University.

Although colleges may be aware of single professors' complaints, few seem inclined to do anything about them. "Fair doesn't necessarily mean equal," says Michael P. Aitken, director of governmental affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management. "Universities tend to craft their policies around the majority of their employees." That means married people.

And professors who are married with children don't feel much sympathy for single colleagues. To those who have juggled research, teaching, and child care while trying to earn tenure, the life of the unattached often looks blissful.

"To be without major family or partner responsibilities is the sine qua non of the research-oriented academic," says Michael Finn, a professor of French at Ryerson University, in Toronto, who is married but has no children. "You can follow that writing inspiration until 5 a.m. if you want, shut down the telephone and close the door for the whole month of June."

At a time when gay and lesbian people are lobbying for the right to wed, marriage is an institution in decline. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, married couples make up only 50.7 percent of all households today, down from 80 percent in the 1950s.

By comparison, academe still resembles the world of Ozzie and Harriet. A nationwide survey of faculty members in the academic year 2001-2, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, found that 76 percent of professors were married and an additional 5 percent lived with a partner. Only 19 percent were single. The proportions were roughly the same as a decade earlier.

"Academe is a marriage culture," says Nancy Berke, a single assistant professor of English and women's studies at La Guardia Community College of the City University of New York. In fact, of those professors who are married, roughly 40 percent are paired with other academics. In the past decade, more universities have accommodated academic couples by finding jobs for both on the same campus. Inevitably, that leaves fewer jobs open to single scholars.

What's more, single professors say, the academic job market can be even tougher on them. Unlike doctors or lawyers, professors don't always have much choice about where they end up -- particularly when the market is tight. Scholars must go where the jobs are, and that may mean an isolated campus in a remote town with few romantic prospects.

A Personal Sacrifice

Marlo M. Belschner, a single, 35-year-old Shakespearean scholar, knew full well that she risked sacrificing her personal life for her career when she accepted a job two years ago at Monmouth College, in Monmouth, Ill., population 9,500. But she didn't realize how big the sacrifice would be. By her count, Monmouth has only three tenured, single male professors, and she has found no eligible men off the campus.

"There are several really amazing things here: I have smart and fun-loving colleagues, I can walk to work, and I bought my four-bedroom house for $65,000," says Ms. Belschner. "This gig is everything I could ask for. It's only when I think of the long term that I become concerned about my personal life."

Ms. Berke, at La Guardia, says that's why she would never move to a small-town campus. She recently interviewed at a small college near New York City, where she learned that everyone in the department was married. "I'm at the interview and two of the guys' wives have just had babies," she says. "The conversation turns to strollers and what brand is best." Would her inability to enter the conversation cast her as an outsider and possibly cost her the job? she wondered. She decided not to pursue the post.

One historian, who used to work at a major research university in the East and asked to remain anonymous, says single scholars do have reason to worry about how their marital status may affect their career prospects. She believes the university denied her tenure two years ago because she counseled her female students to put their personal lives on hold for their careers, something she had done herself. The advice backfired. "This was interpreted by some students as my being against marriage and family," says the scholar, who was told that female students had complained.

Women in academe seem to experience singleness differently from their male counterparts. That may be in part because female professors are more likely to be single. According to the Higher Education Research Institute's survey, 82 percent of male professors were married in the 2001-2 academic year, compared with 65.5 percent of female faculty members. The single male professor has an "almost fetishized status," says Johnnie Wilcox, an assistant professor of English at Ohio University's main campus.

"That person is thought of as such a desirable mate that to have the person lying around single is seen as a waste, a tragedy," says Mr. Wilcox, who is 36 and single. His colleagues, he adds, are always trying to set him up.

Single female professors, by contrast, say they are often ignored and even shunned -- particularly if they are over 40. "If you say, 'I'm a healthy, middle-aged, white woman and I'm single,' people don't even turn around," says Ms. Bach, at Case Western.

Single: a Stigma?

Not all single female professors feel slighted. Sara Hodges, a 37-year-old associate professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, says that being unmarried has never been a stigma for her, and that her married colleagues have always made her feel welcome. "The first year I was here," she recalls, "I had five invitations for Thanksgiving dinner."

Her single status has also paid dividends for the university, she believes. "At a place like the University of Oregon, people tend to stay in their departments and not be interdisciplinary," Ms. Hodges says. She has struck up personal and collegial relationships with professors all across the campus, she says, primarily because she is interested in getting to know people. As a result of those friendships, she says, she has taken part in interdisciplinary undergraduate programs, invited outsiders to speak at brown-bag lunches in her department, and served as the nondepartmental member of a graduate student's dissertation committee.

Most single professors, however, count more negatives than positives to their circumstance. Benita Blessing, 36, an assistant professor of history on the Athens campus, says that while her married colleagues feel free to leave boring faculty meetings to meet their spouses or pick up their children, she has no excuse good enough to walk out. "I could never just say, 'I have to go home and watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns.'"

Celebrating Families

Since Ms. Blessing arrived at Ohio three years ago, she has grown bitter about the unacknowledged ways in which she believes single scholars are snubbed. The sole single woman in the department, she has attended countless bridal and baby showers and engagement parties.

"We do not have parties for people getting tenure or getting promoted," she says. "I received a very prestigious fellowship from the National Academy of Education, and I got a couple of words of congratulations in the hallway. But no one bothered to throw me a party. Here we are in an academic environment, and the things we're celebrating are family-oriented activities."

She also feels compelled to watch her step while interacting with her married male colleagues. "I have professional relationships with male professors, but if I talk to them much outside the office, the wife has to come along," she says, "even if we're going to a coffee shop to talk about a paper."

Most academic research is a solitary activity. That, too, can become stifling when a professor lacks a partner or children to break up the grind.

"In a discipline like history, you're working in some dusty archive, you're by yourself all day, and it's hard not to have immediate family at the end of the day," says Ellen F. Fitzpatrick, a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire. "The problems with being single can be enhanced by the isolation of the academic task."

Still, Ms. Fitzpatrick and other single professors resent the assumption that they have nothing in their lives but work. "Even people who are single get cancer, get depression, and have family responsibilities," she notes.

Many of the tasks of daily life -- caring for a house, running errands, paying bills -- are more onerous for single professors because they have no one with whom to share the work, some of them say. Moya Luckett, an assistant professor of film studies at the University of Pittsburgh, says trying to earn tenure was a particular strain on her because she is single and had no one to lean on. "You have to compile your dossier, and if you're on your own, you can't say to someone, 'I'm going to go AWOL this year, you pick up the slack,'" says Ms. Luckett, who was denied tenure and will leave the university this spring.

But the struggles faced by single professors seem to slip below the radar screen on campuses. It is married professors with children who reap the biggest benefits: health insurance for their families, paid leave after giving birth, subsidized day care, and tuition discounts for their kids. Those extra benefits can add up to a big difference in compensation between single professors and married ones. For example, to provide health insurance for a single employee, Purdue University pays $3,624 annually, compared with the $8,159 it pays for an employee and spouse, and $10,527 for an employee, spouse, and children. The university also covers half the undergraduate tuition, or about $2,930 annually, for a faculty member's child who attends Purdue.

At private institutions, the tuition benefit is worth even more because costs are much higher. At Cornell University, for example, it is worth between $7,250 and $23,000 annually, depending on how long a professor has worked at the university and on the college at Cornell in which the professor's child enrolls.

'Unequal Pay'

Ms. DePaulo, of Santa Barbara, says colleges could level the playing field by allowing single professors to put a parent -- or even a friend -- on their health-insurance policies. And administrators, she believes, should reconsider who gets tuition benefits, to make sure they go to people who need them. "I'm all for helping students who could not otherwise go to college," she says, "but that's not true of very many faculty kids."

In Ms. DePaulo's mind, providing more benefit dollars to married people than single ones amounts to "unequal pay for equal work." The professor, who is 50, started her career at the University of Virginia in 1979 and quickly made a name for herself in scholarly journals and the popular press with her research on the psychology of deception. For several years she didn't think much about being single. "I always thought marriage would happen to me eventually," she says.

But gradually she began noticing slights and inequities. (Timothy D. Wilson, chairman of the psychology department at Virginia, declines to comment on her contention that the department discriminated against her because she was single.) Ms. DePaulo also began reading books and articles on being single, and found that almost all of them looked at it as a problem to be fixed. While she believed that single people were often treated unfairly, she didn't think the only solution was to marry.

She was happy living alone, socializing with a wide circle of friends, and visiting her close-knit Italian family. "I like my alone time," she says.

By 2000, when Ms. DePaulo moved to Santa Barbara for a one-year sabbatical, her personal interest in the psychology of singleness had become a budding academic passion. She realized that "in stark contrast to the scholarship on marriage and family, there are no academic journals dedicated to the study of people who are single, no government funding earmarked for research on singles, no textbooks about singles, and no annual conferences on singles."

She started doing research on discrimination against single people and began giving academic talks on the subject.

When the year was up, Ms. DePaulo took a dramatic step: She jettisoned her 20-year career at UVa, sold her house in Charlottesville, and became a visiting professor here at the University of California to pursue her work. She rents a four-bedroom house -- where she has frequent guests -- in a small, laid-back beach town called Summerland, about 15 miles from the campus.

"I was no longer content to try to squeeze this passionate interest into the crevices of my professional life," she wrote in a proposal for a book -- called "Singled Out" -- that she began sending to publishers in January.

"Thinking about the place of singles in society was my new emotional center," she says. Her hope is to "create a whole new academic field," changing not only the way America treats single people but also the common wisdom about them.

Ms. DePaulo wants most to raise consciousness among single people. Her book proposal lists several myths she believes they need to condemn, including that marriage is the only "truly important peer relationship" and that without it "you will grow old and you will die in a room by yourself." She wants single people -- including those in academe -- to begin questioning what she considers unfair treatment, including the "scam" that she labels: "Let's give all the perks, benefits, gifts, and cash to couples and call it family values."

While her proposal does not offer lots of detailed solutions, Ms. DePaulo believes that colleges should stop treating single professors like second-class citizens. "I don't just think about this as identity politics," she says, "it's about human rights."

But, from the outside, Ms. DePaulo's quality of life doesn't appear to be second class. From her living room, she has a perfect view of the ocean. And her large, blond-wood desk, where she does all of her work, sits smack in the middle of the room. The prerogative of someone who lives alone.


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