If you get a chance, go read Tenured Radical's response on her blog to Horace's posting on doing reviews and other professional service. While her post is most clearly about tenure and the limitations and problems brought on by those expectations, she also brings up the issue of the competitive nature of tenure and the inequality of those competing. As someone who has frequently felt undervalued and undersupported (but doesn't now, which is incredibly nice!), it struck a chord with me.
When TR discussed the issue of privilege, I was reminded of my grad work in "Other Field." In that department, those with great GPAs, GREs, and references from the right undergraduate schools got better financial support than those towards the middle of the crowd in one or more of those areas. (As a girl with very strong GREs but a problematic transcript from state schools, I fell into the latter group.)
Strangely enough(!), the students who had fellowships (read: no labor attached) got through the program faster, did better in classes, and graduated more quickly than those who had TA's. And those with TA's did better than those of us doing other jobs, like work-study, residence life, and other low-pay labor. Some might argue that this clearly showed that they chose correctly--the cream rose to the top, and they funded the people who should have been funded.
But what would have happened if we had all had better funding? If we had all had to work a little, teach a little, and have time just getting funds without any strings attached?
As someone who worked, I always felt a little behind my "supported" colleagues. And none of the faculty would acknowledge how our time spent working impacted our capacity to produce and succeed. Instead, those of us who were doing low-paid labor got seen as less capable, got less mentoring, and never became the "teacher's pet." One of the most thoughtful and capable students I know who did not finish her doctoral degree worked almost full-time during her grad study. But everyone treated her like she should have been able to compete with our fully-funded counterparts, and they were reluctant to give her any financial assistance through the program. I wonder how her life would be different if she had been fully funded.
My experience in Other Field raised questions for me about the long-term outcomes of these earlier disparities. Could it be that those with funding in grad school then benefited from better mentoring? Did they get included on publications, recommended for the post-docs, and gain more opportunities? This then makes them more competitive for tenure when they go up... and the cycle would go on as people pursue promotion to full. For a profession that likes to think that we honor merit, these issues raise troubling questions, from my point of view.
I know all programs are not like my 1st grad; my second grad program put everyone in the same boat in terms of funding--we all had RA positions for the same number of hours and we were paid the same. And I feel that we all got reasonably similar mentoring support (okay, the boys didn't like feminists, but that is no surprise), though we were affected by the status of those who mentored us. Those with high-profile mentors had better access to resources than those who did not, but those differences seemed a little less aggravating to me. But nonetheless, when I look at the outcomes for the grads of that 2nd program, it turns out that we have progressed in a similar pattern.
I know you can't equalize every aspect of university life, but the closer you can get, the better for everyone in the long run. Someone has to address the inequities, and the earlier they start, the better we can all do.