American Academic Profession, The

American Academic Profession, The

Poston, Lawrence

The American Academic Profession

Special issue of Daedalus (fall 1997). Cambridge, Mass.: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 338 pp., $7.95

OF THE FIFTEEN CONTRIBUTORS TO this provocative volume, three come from liberal arts colleges in New England and the South (one of them a historically black institution), three from mid-level private universities (Colgate, Brandeis, and Wake Forest), and eight from major public and private research universities, six of which are in California, with two from Berkeley and UCLA. The author of the single piece on community colleges, Patrick M. Callan, is president of the Higher Education Policy Institute. Thus, although none of the essays falls below the usual critically informed level of discourse characteristic of Daedalus, and although most show a grasp of the profession beyond the contributors’ campus boundaries, on balanc this special issue is tilted toward the large research university environment, toward the two coasts, and away from major land-grant institutions. The volume’s most obvious omission is an account of the professoriate at the regional public universities, many of which emerged over the last three decades from normal-school status. These institutions have become subject in a particularly vexing and problematic way to the tension between “agenda creep” (for example, the drive to achieve Carnegie Research I status) and their historical mission of providing a professionally trained workforce for their more immediate environs. With this caveat, and the recognition that many of the issues discussed are equally applicable to sectors of the academic universe unrepresented by its contributors, this collection of essays is a good stocktaking of U.S. higher education at the end of the century.

Some contributors paint the state of the profession in broad strokes. The volume is framed by two such pieces. Arthur Levine’s opening essay might be called comfortably fatalistic. Some readers may sense a certain schadenfreude in his discussion of the inadequate response of American higher education, now a “mature industry,” to a new climate of regularization and control, and in his assumption that the University of Phoenix represents the wave (or at least a wave) of the future in which, at least in an institution like Phoenix, faculty will face “a vastly different role, one that does not include participation in governance, and minimal activity in curriculum planning…. Total salary costs will be lower, and all or most faculty will be part-time.”

At the other end of the symposium, Philip G. Altbach somewhat too sweepingly indicts American faculty for the insularity of their research habits, their lack of support for the internationalization of the curriculum, their ignorance of foreign languages, and their failure to realize that if institutions are going to survive and the traditional prerogatives of the professoriate to be maintained, the profession will need to take an active role in ensuring institutional well-being. It is more difficult to evaluate his view that “in general, there is little sense of crisis among academics; most seem unaware of the magnitude of the problems facing American higher education.” No doubt the response to those problems is often parochial, too frequendy translated into merely departmental and disciplinary terms, but in my observation the unease among American faculty members masks more than just an impatience with inadequate raises or frustration over working conditions. Other contributors, like Burton R. Clark, Francis Oakley, Sheldon Rothblatt, and Martin J. Trow, take somewhat more finely tuned views of their subject. Clark stresses the differentiation and fragmentation of the academy. Oakley reminds us that although the academic generation now passing from the scene may lament that the sixties are no more, “the mid-1950s to 1971 was an unusual period of partial recovery that turns out, in retrospect, merely to have punctuated the more persistent process of decline in the fortunes of the profession that had set in after World War I.” Trow, who is firmly committed to “faculty ownership of the curriculum,” offers a balanced view of the rise of instructional technology that neither demonizes it as a threat to traditional values nor exalts it as the savior of undergraduate education. Rothblatt’s essay, “The Place of Knowledge in the American Academic Profession,” is perhaps the most magisterial of the lot. Asking whether some fields of intellectual endeavor now located in the university will be more strongly represented outside it in the future, he portrays a situation in which “incentives and initiative may . . . shift to those institutions with a capacity to simulate university inquiry,” and suggests that “universities will lose much of their autonomy in determining which kinds of research should receive priority and how academic research is to be evaluated in relation to tenure and professional careers.” Rothblatt anticipates an increase in strategic or marketed team research (on the industry model, in which a self-imposed time limit is followed by a disbanding of the project team), and points out how that model challenges traditional ideas of profit sharing, the allocation of scholarly credit, university authority in joint ventures with industry, and classical peerreview systems. Rothblatt further describes the erosion of the idea of the university as a physically bounded space, a logical consequence of research universities becoming tied, first to nation-state agendas and now increasingly to a bewildering network of public, private, and corporate groups. He believes that “in this scenario, already so real, the research university is not a place or a milieu but a pied-it-terre.”

Theodore R. Mitchell takes on a similar array of issues but offers a different metaphor to describe them: for him, changes in higher education can be described as a form of “border crossings” between internal campus processes and new units that serve as conduits for external demands. In this arresting but somewhat diffuse essay, boundary maintenance is perceived alternately as “buffering” (protecting the core values of the institution) and “bridging” (accepting limited accommodations that do not compromise those values). In a nice revisitation of Thorstein Veblen’s jeremiad, The Higher Learning in America, Mitchell reminds us that Veblen anticipated many of today’s “utilitarian” challenges to the university. Although (contrary to Veblen’s worst fears) the result has often been scholarship of a high quality, “the question of whether the university can survive as a niche player, focusing on basic inquiry, is a question we have never answered affirmatively, and it is unlikely that we will do so in this generation.” It seems that, in Mitchell’s terms, we must all experience the ambiguities of living on the boundary line.

Some awareness of institutional difference softens the edges of such pictures. In a footnote, Rothblatt suggests that the quiet battle he describes may play out to the benefit of liberal arts colleges, since “elite undergraduate education cannot be simulated,” while Walter Massey hypothesizes that historically black colleges and universities are well placed to respond to Ernest Boyer’s proposed redefinitions of scholarship. Altbach, stressing the negative, rightly identifies the less-selective colleges and comprehensive universities as sites of increasing reliance on part-time and nontenure-track faculty. Few contributors, however, pay more than passing attention to institutional variation, though Patrick Callan, noting that 65 percent of community college faculty are parttime, adds, bafflingly, that “it is difficult to tell whether this high proportion. . bodes well for the future.” Why, one might rejoin, is it difficult?

Such changes raise serious questions about the future of shared governance. Patricia Gumport voices nothing new (though she says it very well indeed) when she declares that “the new style of academic management regards the notion of a professionally self-regulating and autonomous faculty, if it ever existed, as no longer affordable, let alone appropriate for state employees.” To Gumport’s suggestion of calculated managerial strategy should be juxtaposed Rothblatt’s portrayal of something more nearly resembling confusion if not chaos: “[I]t is difficult to imagine a more differentiated universe than the present research university, with its seemingly infinite number of interest groups and opposing policies…. Initiative is shifting to the outside, where great electronic firms and global pharmaceutical interests are clearer about their objectives.” The problem, it would seem, is less conspiratorial than adventitious, a combination of drift, inertia, and an eye (occasionally) for the main chance.

In circumstances such as these, Charles Bernstein’s Newmanite defense of inquiry for its own sake (“at its best, education delivers nothing-it enables, animates”) may seem almost painfully anachronistic, and he is the single contributor to the volume explicitly to defend tenure and academic freedom as valuable not because they provide job security to individual faculty members but because they serve the public good. There is no contRict between the public interest and full-time tenured employment: short-term cost savings cannot justify the long-term economic folly of compromising one of the most substantial intellectual and cultural resources this society has created. Thus we should rejoice in an open-ended research that can just as well lead nowhere as somewhere, research that is wasteful and inefficient by short-term socioeconomic standards but practically a steal as a long-term research and development investment in democracy, freedom, and creativity-without which we won’t have much of an economic future.

Passion also invests the work of those contributors who write most directly out of their own discipline: R. M. Douglas (the only assistant professor in the lot, and in a visiting position at that) on postgraduate education and its discontents, Eugene Goodheart on the culture wars, and Bernstein and Gumport on their respective topics. A fresh account of other less noted wars, postmodern disputes over the nature of scientific inquiry, comes from Jay A. Labinger. And although much of Cheryl 3 study of the “scientist as academic” merely confirms that scientists are doing almost as poorly as humanists, her depressing account of changes in science policy under Reagan whereby “the paradigm of the scientist as independent scholar. . . was overtaken by a new model of the `savvy,’ cost-conscious, bottom-line oriented, entrepreneurial researcher” registers some facts of which we all should be reminded.

The examples set by these faculty members do not suggest that the profession is in danger of succumbing to complacency or various forms of academic astigmatism. But the symposium as a whole describes panoramically a multitude of pressures from without that can no longer simply be written off as legislative hostility or governing board mistrust. As a profession with an investment in the success of its own next generation, it would seem that we have hardly begun to articulate the response that is needed.

Lawrence Poston is professor of English and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Copyright American Association of University Professors Sep/Oct 1998

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