Thursday, October 1, 2009

Female university students are "perks of the job"?

by Kaite Welsh

University women's groups in Britain are up in arms after a leading academic referred to female students as "perks of the job." In a Times article titled ‘The Seven Deadly Sins of the Academy’, Vice-Chancellor Kealey of Buckingham University claims, “Most male lecturers know that, most years, there will be a girl in class who flashes her admiration and who asks for advice on her essays.” To add insult to injury, he assumes that he is speaking to an all-male readership. Presumably the female academics of his acquaintance were too busy swooning over his alleged charms - or filing sexual harassment suits.

Despite enjoying the position of power he has over all these nubile young women, Kealey insists that teacher/student relationships are in no way an abuse of power – or rather, it's those damn women offering sex for good grades who are abusing their position. He even goes as far as to say that “[t]he fault lies with the females.” And here I was thinking that one of the prerequisites for an academic career was the capacity for original thought! He compares female students to strippers at the notorious London club Stringfellows and concludes with the reminder that it, as in that esteemed establishment, extracurricular desire should go no further than admiring from a distance, mysteriously admonishing the reader that “You should have learnt by now that all cats are grey in the dark.” What he means, I’m not sure. That all women are interchangeable? Maybe so. After all, it isn’t their brains he is interested in.

As both a former student and a fledgling academic, I was left feeling profoundly discomfited by his remarks -, and by the fact that a well-regarded academic newspaper felt that they were worthy of publication. I don’t want to worry about what I wear to class, in case my lecturer finds it provocative. I don't want to have my interest in someone's research misinterpreted as romantic interest. If we cannot be valued for our minds at university, we may as well give up now.

I am not a perk to be enjoyed. If I seek your approval, it is because of my ideas, not my cleavage. If I gaze at you intently during a seminar, it is because your words inspire, frustrate or confuse me – or, as happened during my undergraduate days, because you have egg salad on your tie.

I feel sorry for the poor student who arrived at Vice-Chancellor Kealey’s office hours to be met by a seduction rather than any academic support. Then again, given the quality of his prose, perhaps she was better off.

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