• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


The other classes on campus

The series title "Town & Country" put me in mind of something I hadn't thought about for years.

June 18, 2009

The series title "Town & Country" put me in mind of something I hadn't thought about for years.

When I was barely able to peer over the meadhall windowsill, I stumbled across a magazine at the local public library. At first, I thought it was imported from the UK, because it didn't occur to me that people with that much money and that many polo ponies could live in the USA. It was, of course, "Town & Country". It was published by Hearst. And it was all about class. About people who exuded class. And about making readers who didn't exude class wish that they were reading something else. Which, after browsing a couple of issues, I did.

(BTW, there's a magazine -- still published by Hearst -- called "Town & Country" on the news-stands right now. It may be a direct lineal descendant, but it's by no means the original. Aimed at upper-middle-class professionals who wish they came from old money, it bears as much resemblance to the journal of my youth as does the current t-shirt shop -- nary a custom-made safari jacket or a Purdey shotgun in sight -- to the original Abercrombie & Fitch.)

Anyways, back to that class thing.

Here in the USA, we're not supposed to think much about socio-politico-economic class. We like to think that our society is classless, at least in the sense that where you're born on the spectrum doesn't have to be where you end up. "Classlessness" is tied into our idea of ourselves as a meritocracy; empirical data that folks in historically classed societies exhibit far greater socio-economic mobility is conveniently ignored.

But if there's a single portion of American society where social class is plain to see, it's got to be higher education. Universities in particular. Greenback is a good (?) example.

At a quick count, there are five social classes on campus. In rough order from bottom to top, four are:

- The physical manipulators. Folks whose jobs involve moving actual stuff, or overseeing such movement. I'm thinking building maintenance, grounds maintenance, the parking crew, campus security.

- The symbol manipulators. Business administrators, academic administrative support staff (the workers, not the hats), IT staff. Folks who do mostly indoor work, with no heavy lifting. (If your IT staff occasionally gets involved in pulling network cables behind walls or above ceilings, they're still mainly involved in symbol manipulation. The full-time electricians who do the same job, however, are physicalists.)

- The faculty. I'm sure there are subclasses within this one (tenured vs. not, endowed vs. not, graduate vs. under-grad, etc.), but as a whole the faculty seems to interact among itself by a different set of rules than it interacts with any of the other classes, with the possible exception of ...

- The "hats". Deans. Some (but not all) Directors. Anybody with an executive title. The people who significantly influence expenditure levels, employment levels, and pretty much anything else that comes along.

The fifth class of people on campus is hard to put into the same continuum as the other four. Sometimes it's like they're at the top of the heap, sometimes the bottom. (In the minds of some of the employees, students are at the top of the scale. The lived experience of many students, though, might contradict that view.)

My observation here at Greenback is that each of these classes tends to converse, eat, socialize, behave not only separately from each of the others, but by a different set of rules from each of the others. What's expected, what's acceptable, what's valued differs from class to class.

And the implication of that, from a campus change agency perspective, is that each class of campus contributor has to be considered individually. The values and priorities of a faculty member and an academic administrative staff member aren't the same, even though they might work in the same department -- sometimes even the same office. They'll likely respond best to differing presentations of different information. The bars our sustainability discussions have to get over before any behavior will change aren't just higher or lower based on job function and role, they're different in kind. The definition of what "doing a good job" means, the risks associated with not doing a good job, the willingness (or lack thereof) to change how a job gets done -- each of these has an answer which depends, at least in part, on the class of campus community member whose job we're talking about.

I'd ask my friendly neighborhood Sociology professor for guidance, but it seems that sociologists (as a rule) are less interested in the subject of class than they used to be. Maybe that ties in -- at least tangentially -- to the evolution of clothing stores. And magazines.


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