Chronicles of Faculty Idealism, Disenchantment, and Resistance

A collection of the recollections and analyses of long-service academics, who have faced the disenchantment many academics feel, could be a valuable resource for dialogue on our campuses.

In recent years there has been no shortage of scholarly studies and commentaries on the changing nature of the academic profession in an era of commercialism1.  To this crowded field Janice Newson and Claire Polster have managed to add a novel – and distinctly Canadian -contribution with Academic Callings: The University We Have Had, Now Have, and Could Have, their new volume of invited autobiographical essays and faculty memoirs. Nearly all  the twenty-nine contributors to this book convey  frustration about how the pursuit of values intrinsic to the academic enterprise is being undermined by a  competitive corporate ethos that has brought an escalation of instrumentalism and commercialization to the practices of higher education and research. Addressed to new or prospective faculty members, the goal of this collection is to pass on “institutional memory” from retiring or mid-career faculty who have lived through many of these transformations and have tried to cope with the increasing disenchantment with the academic calling that many academics feel. 

Citing the (presumed) rapid pace of faculty replacement, Newson and Polster hope that their collection might serve as a kind of mentoring resource for the large number of new faculty  entering today’s university  when the corporate model of the university may appear either natural or inescapable. The essays in Academic Callings are not intended to display the full rigour of scholarly analysis, but they do offer compelling, highly intelligent, and instructive personal reflections by professors from a range of disciplines in Canadian universities. Together they provide an interesting lens for looking at the way academic careers and lives have been transformed by new patterns of managerialism and externally imposed performance pressures. Nearly all  the authors agree that these forces have threatened collegiality and disabled the possibility of collective social purpose that is central to the ideal of the university. Many of the strongest voices are ready to embrace passionately struggles to preserve the critical potential of academic research, teaching, and reflection. 

It is easy for professors to wax sentimental about the ideals of their profession,  so it is refreshing that most of the accounts in this book do not fall into that trap. Many of the authors admit  they do not expect contemporary universities to exist in splendid isolation from economic life, and several of the best essays acknowledge that academic callings are often most seriously threatened from within by complacency and “careerism”. Janice Ristock, in her role as an associate dean of research, worries that many young and aspiring professors may be seduced by the academic “star” system. She also is concerned that so many of her colleagues assume  they must align their research interests with priorities established by granting agencies in the name of strategic partnerships. In the concluding passages of her “Postcard from the Belly of the Beast,” Ristock exhorts her young colleagues to resist the temptation to simply “follow the money.” In a revealing aside she tempers her remarks by reminding them that she is an academic middle manager with few opportunities to influence systemic imperatives.

Karen Rudie’s essay strikes a familiar chord with the observation that “[e]very professor I know is tired.” Rudie provides one of the more candid assessments of how some professors find their careers are too often strained and tweaked to adapt to the demands of the high performance publication model. She describes with some nostalgia how, as a graduate student, she felt the freedom to devote herself to shaping her thoughts, letting her research find its own rhythm. As a professor, however, she has become dismayed about how quantitative performance measures  have shaped and warped so much of her work. Even  graduate students have pushed her to submit their papers for publication before the papers  were  of good enough quality, largely so that the students could win brownie points on scholarship applications. “Even more scary,” she writes, “some of these papers have been published.”

Rudie’s essay provides a humorous, highly personal, yet incisively critical portrait of the institutional and social costs of the corporate model of higher education. She makes the suggestive observation that cheap and easy information exchange has brought some benefits but has also made it difficult for students and faculty members alike to resist the allure of efficiency in favour of the more valuable qualities of academic reflection and research. As a scientist, Rudie is careful to avoid romanticizing the non-utilitarian side of academic work. Nor does she believe  the university should avoid any connection with industry or the market. For her, intellectual integrity is a matter of recognizing when and how those boundaries must be respected, and her bottom line is that research must never become “product development work in disguise.” 

Rudie is joined by other contributors who try to encourage professors to use their considerable privilege and status to restore the integrity of their work and to combat academic disenchantment. They can refuse to glorify the publication treadmill and the obsession over the size of research grants. Perhaps more important, they should try to see their teaching responsibilities as more than simply a punishment for not rising high enough in the research pecking order. Finally, they should see their tenure and professional autonomy as providing the space to engage in resistance, not only by defending the freedom of teaching and research and enabling critical and controversial political stances, but also by making it possible to serve the “greater good. “ 

However, as some of the essayists in Academic Callings reveal, the reality of resistance is often complicated. In outlining the unconventional careers of indigenous academics, Jo-Anne Archibald shows how they have begun to earn representation in today’s academic world. Nevertheless, she finds that her indigenous colleagues may pay a career advancement price for their “advocacy-oriented academic work.”  Roberta Hamilton, a sociologist at Queen’s University, explains how she unknowingly benefited from the quiet efforts of a supportive colleague to explain gaps in her c.v. that resulted from earlier family and childrearing responsibilities. Like a number of other contributors, Hamilton calls on readers to use their faculty privileges and  summon the courage to resist exclusion and elitism in universities. Many of her observations are  sobering. Despite the evolution of a more inclusive and progressive curriculum over the span of her career, universities still reflect, she believes, dominant forces of inequality and power. She also worries  the protections of tenure may look more and more anachronistic in a fragile economy, and she ends her essay by reminding young colleagues not to take academic rebellion so far that one does not end up with a seat at the table.

Jenny Hornosty gives an inspiring account of her career, first as a graduate student at Berkeley and later as a respected feminist sociologist and faculty activist at the University of New Brunswick. Having arrived at the end of her career, however, she worries whether the current generation of women will be as fortunate as she was, especially in balancing life, family, and career. She joins Joan Sangster, a prominent feminist historian, in identifying the seeds of a possible re-emergence of academic conservatism and an exhaustion of emancipatory energies. They suggest that, in today’s university, race and gender based exclusions are not likely to come from traditional sources but, rather from institutionalized imperatives, such as growing competition, comfort, and individualism, which may divert energies from social commitment and a partisanship for social justice. Reinforcing this trend are the many forces that may dampen the appetite of faculty, especially junior colleagues, from participating in institutional governance or the affairs of their faculty association. 

It is especially refreshing to see a section of this book devoted to chronicles of faculty members who have gone over to the “dark side” to serve in university administration. New frameworks of accountability, productive efficiency, branding, and marketing have caused business norms to pervade the offices of deans and senior administrators, despite the fact that those positions are occupied by academics rather than professional bureaucrats. In her essay “The Paradoxes of Academic Administration,” Mary Ellen Purkis is troubled by the growing distance between administrators and faculty and by her own observation that faculty members who  serve in administration are now far less likely than before to return to the collegial ranks. Nevertheless, she offers the surprising suggestion that her experience of the ineluctable tension between the two spheres has allowed her to recover opportunities for a creative response. For her, the work of administration opens a unique site of dialogue that does not require total surrender to hardened structural boundaries between the two roles. Indeed, a number of contributors believe that faculty members who are idealistic about their profession should embrace opportunities to serve in academic administration.

With a few notable exceptions, this is very much a book about – and by – those who have only known careers in the tenure-track. Indeed, for a collection entitled Academic Callings, one would expect to hear more reflection on the decades-old structural divide between relatively privileged tenured academics and casualized academic workers, most of whom receive low pay and struggle to maintain any meaningful standing in the community of academic professionals. Thankfully, the editors did manage to remedy this deficiency in part by including Alison Hearn’s superb essay, “Exploits in the Undercommons.” Hearns speaks from her own personal experience of labouring many years in the under-professionalized academic shadows. She makes the important observation that contract faculty no longer serve merely as occasional pinch hitters  for sabbatical replacement or fiscal emergencies; rather, now, these ghettoized teachers are central to the very structure of the corporate university. Indeed, Hearn’s essay confronts the dirty little secret that contingent faculty members work side by side with their regular faculty counterparts but have almost no visibility or recognition in the very community that this book is meant to strengthen. Indeed, she suggests that this is one area where faculty unions and the academic profession as a whole are guilty of “denial” and political failure.

The dominant challenge set by  these essays is to imagine new prospects for strengthening academics’ sense of collective membership, solidarity, and common purpose. In the volume’s concluding essay, Janice Newson recounts how, after years of diminished collegial relations at the institutional level, she has at least been able to rediscover the university as a “distinctive space”  at the micro level of the classroom. Frank Cunningham, a political philosopher, provides a number of good illustrations about how the hollowing out of collegiality has occurred. In his view, the expansion of elitism, disciplinary specialization, and prestige competition have created “walls and funnels,” including multiple forms of fragmentation within – and between – universities. The best hope academics have for finding a sense of collective purpose, according to Cunningham, is to find ways of challenging boundaries, reconnecting teaching and research, and restoring the time, opportunity, and incentive for interaction between academic fields and disciplines. 

In a view shared by many others in this book, Cunningham believes that the key to making this happen is to restore adequate public funding. As much as most of us would share this goal, one wonders whether more public support would be enough to fortify community and common purpose in academic life. On the one hand, it is true, as Cunningham says, that better funding might relieve some of the pressures students feel to earn money while studying, thereby giving them more time for integrating into campus life and academic communities. But it is doubtful that more assistance (or lower tuition) by itself would cause fewer students to see academic life as something more than credential accumulation  and occupational preparation. Likewise, with respect to fragmentation among the professoriate, it is probably not a lack of public funding that has weakened the ties between specialized disciplines and fields or made common dialogue and collegial interaction more elusive. The most important loyalties for many of today’s faculty members are to their research-focused networks, which are typically trans-institutional in character. This is likely a consequence of research intensification, which has causes other than how much funding is available and  where it comes from. It is hard to make the case that more public funding by itself could really address excessive forms of fragmentation, competition, and elitism within universities.

In the end, this book is about the academic profession. Some of the threats to the work of professors are not entirely different from those affecting other professions, such as journalism or medicine, which have also experienced role tensions in the face of market pressures and commercialization. The self-governance of the academic profession is intended to safeguard its ability to serve society. In fact, this is why  professors continue to be offended by anything that threatens their  monopoly over academic policy or their  exclusive right to make decisions about who should be allowed to enter the profession and how their work should be ranked. But academic self-regulation is not completely benign. As Louis Menand  has recently noted, some features of the system of academic self-regulation that are meant to protect academic work from the market may actually encourage conformism. This is because the increasingly high bar that is placed on entry into the academic profession makes heterodoxy more risky and leads to a slower turnover of academic paradigms. Likewise, this is associated with a competitive buyer’s market (too many PhD’s for the number of jobs available) which contributes to the pool of invisible, contingent faculty. Ironically, then, the kind of autonomy and professional solidarity that  are conditions of resistance to academic capitalism can also be a source of structural exclusion under academic capitalism.

One political device for protecting academic autonomy and collegial rights is the organization of professors into university faculty associations. This book includes a number of examples in which engagement with faculty associations has helped to ensure fair opportunities for career progress and even resistance to administrative overreaching. Sometimes, however, faculty unions become “too good” at protecting rights and are, therefore, accused – often by their own members – of not paying sufficient heed to merit or too resistant to change. Indeed, many faculty unions tend to be ambivalent toward the competitive practices of their own members. Moreover, professors themselves have uneasy relationships to faculty unions since these organizations compete with the structures of collegial self-governance (university senates, etc.) and disciplinary affiliation as sources of institutional voice and power. While this book includes a number of compelling anecdotes about the importance of faculty unions, it contains perhaps too little reflection on the internal and external challenges they face as agents for progressive change in the current climate.

Of course, it is not the purpose of Academic Callings to provide an exhaustive treatment of the analytical and practical questions of academic disenchantment. In fact, one cannot help but be impressed by the nature and quality of the stories of exceptional people who have tried to exemplify integrity in their academic careers and who have linked those careers to the pursuit of social justice and institutional reform. The sheer breadth of experience and personal recollection also makes this a worthy read. After encountering these essays, academics at any stage of their careers might very well be prompted to recall long-forgotten episodes in their own development, which can now receive new illumination. Indeed, Newson and Polster may not be so wrong to recommend this book as a resource for actual dialogue on our campuses.

Richard Wellen is an associate professor in the Department of Social Science, Business and Society Program, at York University.

1 Some of the best might include Cote and Allahars’ Ivory Tower Blues (Toronto, Universtiy of Toronto Press, 2007), Gaye Tuchman’s Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) or Frank Donaghue’s The Last Professors (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

2 See Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010).