Hourly wage workers at universities are daily reminded of the many ways their employers indicate their relative inferiority to its teachers and administrators who boast advanced degrees and certifications. One recent trend, the adoption of LEED parking standards, serves as testimony to how the knowledge class perpetuates privileges for those at the top of the university system.

LEED- — which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — is an internationally recognized green building certification system, equivalent to a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for buildings that meet specific standards for being environmentally friendly. For example, Rush University Medical Center in Chicago proudly reports that it reserves 25 parking stalls at the entranceway of its parking garage for hybrid cars.

At issue is what these standards say about status relationships within the Academy. To frame this issue from a “critical perspective” so favored by many in the professoriate, we need to answer this question: Who is privileged and who disadvantaged by LEED parking standards?

Data indicate LEED parking standards favor university professionals who already have power, wealth, and status: mature, well-to-do, highly degreed members of the leisure class. Those most likely to earn reserved parking are:

Affluent. The Volt, a GM car for which purchasers, whose annual income averages US$175,000, receive a $7,500 taxpayer subsidy, “appeals to an affluent, progressive demographic,” says Bill Visnic, senior editor for Edmunds.com. “It’s rare. It’s hard to get one. … It’s the same reason that people buy the really rare exotic cars: Because other people can’t have one.”

Similarly, 71 percent of Prius owners were found to earn more than $100,000 per year. A Topline Strategy Group study found a significant number of hybrid buyers trade down from foreign-made luxury vehicles, such as the Audi A6, BMW X3 or Acura TL, a means of exchanging a status symbol of the 90s for the new moniker of sophistication, one that earns its owner a highly visible and privileged parking space.

Urbane. The 2007 Scarborough Research lifestyle survey of 110,000 adults revealed hybrid owners are much more likely to go skiing, hiking, practice yoga and to consume organic food, yogurt, and decaffeinated coffee than the general population.

Highly educated. Walter McManus, of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute reports “Hybrid car drivers have a level of education higher than any group of car drivers that I’ve ever seen.”

Middle aged: J. D. Powers’ research reveals hybrid drivers average close to 50 years of age.

By contrast, what populations are disadvantaged by LEED parking standards?

The working poor: those campus employees in such fields as landscaping, janitorial, secretarial, law enforcement, and food services, often disproportionately female, African-American and Hispanic, whose educations, incomes, and lack of social capital distinguish them from those who are privileged with reserved university parking. As approved cars are primarily three or fewer years old, LEED standards favor white-collar over blue-collar workers as well as married couples over the single-parent, populations who typically can only afford to purchase older, used cars rather than the new cars that qualify for reserved parking spaces.

Large families. LEED standards disadvantage large families as well. Van, pickup and SUV buyers all tend to have more children than other car buyers; in fact, research shows 45 percent of SUV buyers have two or more children.

Younger car owners. Other data show SUV purchasers to be young married couples, aged 30-35, with a median income of $60,000, substantially less than those who buy hybrid cars. Only two per cent of hybrid owners are 24 or younger.

Academics often tell students that citizens with the advantages of wealth, education, and breeding have an obligation to show empathy with and respect for the lives of those who do not possess the social, intellectual or economic capital of society’s privileged classes.

If their motives were sincere, academic decision makers might develop alternative standards for privileged parking such special spaces for hourly wage “employee of the week” workers, as well as close-in parking for pregnant employees or for staff who have to pick up children after school, thus serving the interests of those caring for the most dependent members of society.

Alternatively, to produce provable reductions in gas use and emissions without privileging the well-to-do, schools could advocate carpooling, giving the best spaces to those cars with the most occupants.  Or they could assign privileged spaces to those who live closest to the school and more distant spaces to those who drive longer distances and thus use more gas and emit more pollutants.

Unsurprisingly, many hourly wage employees at universities view sceptically those inside the Academy who profess to feel compassion for the young and for the working classes struggling to make a living in a harshly competitive world. It is perhaps why viewers laugh knowingly at a South Park episode that lampoons a character who, after purchasing a hybrid (called a “Pious”), self-righteously puts fake tickets on SUVs.

In the name of sustainability, a cause popular on American college campuses, LEED standards dictate that the best parking spots be given to hybrid car owners, advantaging those who trade a BMW for a Prius or Escape. Under the pretext of improving air quality, an unlikely outcome of simply parking hybrids next to each other rather than having them dispersed throughout a parking lot, the Academy has succeeded in putting a privileged knowledge class in the driver’s seat, while silently informing campus employees who mow lawns, clean bathrooms and serve drinks at receptions of their proper place in the back of the University bus. 

Tom Clark teaches Management and Entrepreneurship at Xavier University, in Ohio.

Dr Thomas Clark is Professor of Management & Entrepreneurship at Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH, where he has taught both undergraduate and MBA courses in the areas of Organizational Behavior,...