Apr 27 2009

Report Back from U.S. Conference of the Network for Academic Renewal

Category: NewsBob Hanke @ 5:45 pm

After the Crash, Scholars Say, Higher Education Must Refocus on Its Public Mission
By David Glenn (excerpted from the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 17, 2009, Volume 55, Issue 32, Page A10)

The economic crisis weighed on the minds of the 200 scholars who gathered here this month for a national conference of the Network for Academic Renewal, a project of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. But even as the federal government announced that 660,000 more jobs had been lost in March, several of the speakers here saw — or perhaps grasped for — reasons for hope.

The recession, they said, might be a time for colleges to renew their implicit contract with the public, and for faculty members to reassert their standing as professionals.

Many of the assumptions of the dizzy boom years seem suddenly untenable,” said William M. Sullivan, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in a lecture. “In post-crash America, there will be more intense demands for scrutiny and accountability as to the effectiveness of academe at fulfilling its public mission.”

If colleges — and their faculty members — want to maintain their autonomy in the face of such scrutiny, Mr. Sullivan said, they should demonstrate that they are committed to education as a public good. The public must be persuaded, he said, that colleges are not insular and self-absorbed, and that diplomas and academic laboratories have not been reduced “to the status of commodities.”

A similar warning was sounded by Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, during a plenary session.

Some academic institutions, Mr. Rhoades said, have abandoned their public missions as they have pursued tokens of status and wealth.

“The chasing of revenue, the chasing of students who can pay higher and higher tuition, the chasing of technology-transfer money, and the status seeking that comes from trying to recruit ‘better’ students — all of that has taken us away from the idea that education is a path for upward social mobility,” Mr. Rhoades said. “All of the evidence is that over the last 15 or 20 years, we have actually been increasing social stratification with what we’re doing in the academy.”

Mr. Sullivan, Mr. Rhoades, and several other speakers also called for a renewed idea of the professoriate as a profession. But the speakers offered a range of different ideas about what faculty professionalism actually requires.

The most austere vision came from Neil W. Hamilton, a professor at the University of Saint Thomas School of Law and director of its Thomas E. Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions. Mr. Hamilton argued that the heart of professionalism is upholding norms and policing one’s peers. Just as law students are required to take courses in professional responsibility, Mr. Hamilton said, graduate students should be required to study research ethics.

Faculty members can justify and protect their autonomy, he said, only if they have a shared understanding of what counts as good and bad behavior.

“A professional cannot defend what he or she does not understand,” Mr. Hamilton said. He said he doubted that most of his colleagues could coherently defend tenure and faculty autonomy in a five-minute conversation with a skeptical trustee or state legislator. “The profession carries an ongoing burden,” he said, “to justify academic freedom, peer review, and shared governance.”

Oddly, in all this talk of academic ethics, faculty autonomy, and external interference, no one mentioned the issue of the moment: Ward Churchill’s successful lawsuit against the University of Colorado.)

In his lecture, Mr. Rhoades, too, called for new faculty members to be more deeply socialized into the ethos of the academy. But he suggested that it is the structure of the academic work force, and not any lack of ethics training, that is the most serious barrier to faculty professionalism.

Adjuncts, Mr. Rhoades said, are almost never given the time, training, and job security that would allow them to develop professional identities at a particular college. He called for a new commitment to full-time, tenure-track jobs.

“You cannot have a fully engaged faculty if less than a third of them are in secure-track positions,” he said. “Would you want a work force in the health-care field that was just, ‘Oh, you know what? You can have part-time positions.’?”


Op-Ed of the WeekEnd of the University as We Know it by Mark C. Taylor.

Blog Post of the WeekMore Drivel From the New York Times by Marc Bousquet.

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