Friday, April 23, 2004
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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,"
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.
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
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
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
"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