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Jewish World Review July 11, 2000 /8 Tamuz, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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America's dirty academic secret: College sweatshops -- IT IS TRULY IRONIC that people at colleges and universities across the country have been organizing to protest sweatshop labor in the Third World, when the greatest examples of sweatshop labor in America are on their own campuses.

Where else can a nationwide cartel work people for no money at all, while collecting millions of dollars from the fruits of their labor? That cartel is the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the people whose work brings in millions at the gate are the athletes who play on college teams.

In big-time college football and basketball, it is not uncommon for the coach to make more money than the college or university president -- sometimes several times what the academic chief executive makes. But if any money finds its way into the hands of the players who put their bodies on the line, that is called a "scandal."

One football player who put his body on the line and is now paralyzed as a result of an injury sustained during a game, Kent Waldrup, Jr. of Texas Christian University, was recently denied any right to disability benefits from the university by an appellate court because he was not an "employee."

The academic aspect of campus life is not a lot better, as far as sweatshop labor is concerned. Teaching assistants across the country are joining labor unions to try to get better pay for their work. Parents who pay megabucks tuition for their children to go to big-name colleges and universities may not realize that their offspring are all too often being taught by no-name teaching assistants who are paid a pittance, rather than by the big-name professors who give the institution its aura and collect six-figure salaries.

Teaching assistants do not simply assist with teaching. They teach many of the courses all by themselves. In some departments, more classes are taught by TA's than by professors. These include some of the top-rated universities in the country.

With both college athletes and TA's, the claim is made that they are being compensated by getting an education. Only for the TA's is that likely to be true in most cases. Big-time football and basketball are full-time jobs.

Athletes have to go through the motions of getting an education, for the sake of appearances and eligibility to play. But those who actually get a degree -- much less an education -- are the exceptions, rather than the rule.

Teaching assistants are usually graduate students who are working toward their Master's degrees or their Ph.D.s, while taking on the job of teaching undergraduate courses that their professors don't want to be bothered teaching. In a big-name university, anyone taking introductory courses in math or English is very unlikely to see a member of the faculty standing in front of the class.

Graduate students in general are very vulnerable, since their first opportunities in the professional careers ahead of them depend on the recommendations of their professors, some of whom have exploited that dependency unconscionably. Some professors have stolen their graduate students' ideas and published them as their own. Others have exploited their graduate students sexually.

One professor at Stanford was accused of having sexually molested the son of one of his graduate students and committed suicide shortly thereafter. Most, however, pay no such price -- or any price at all. Even the accused molester had a medal struck in his honor after his death.

If the morally anointed on campus want to protest exploitation, they need not look overseas -- or even beyond their own ivy-covered buildings.

As for the people in the Third World, jobs with American companies operating there are likely to be among the best jobs available, even if these jobs don't pay as much as they pay in the United States. Since the workers are unlikely to produce as much output per hour as American workers, pressuring companies to pay American wages means that fewer Third World workers will have jobs at all.

If the real purpose of all the uproar about sweatshop labor in the Third World is to allow college students and professors to feel morally one-up on businesses that are providing much-needed jobs in poor countries, then it accomplishes that purpose. But it may accomplish nothing else, except perhaps to demonstrate yet again academic hypocrisy.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate