Debora Rhode. In Pursuit of Knowledge: Scholars, Status and Academic Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006. Mary Burgan. Whatever Happened to the Faculty: Drift and Decision in Higher Education. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
In Pursuit of Knowledge: Scholars, Status and Academic Culture and Whatever Happened to the Faculty: Drift and Decision in Higher Education both review recurring concerns about institutional and individual behaviours in American academe. Deborah Rhodes sees the pursuit of prestige by universities and professors as displacing the cherished ideal of advancing and disseminating knowledge. Mary Burgan argues that diminishing faculty participation in campus affairs is leading to a style of university governance that underemphasizes academic values. These indictments, the authors acknowledge, are not new. Prestige obsession, competition, and strong administrations are historical features of American universities. Both authors argue, however, that these malaises are getting worse.
Neither Rhodes nor Burgan are higher education researchers. Perhaps for this reason these books do not offer original insight or analysis for the initiated. Their approach is of the seasoned scholar who, at some point in a busy and frantic career, takes a step back to appreciate her surroundings and reflect on the larger contexts shaping her professional experiences. Both use personal observations and literary anecdotes as they sift through the literature to build their cases. Both have faculty at the centre of the analyses. Stereotypical academic behaviours taken from campus novels are used in the two books to drive home some of the points made about cutthroat competition, academic snobbery, and faculty alienation from institutional concerns.
Generally, Rhode and Burgan may be considered reformers with a longing for an academia that is purer and truer to its ideals. Rhode leans towards reconsidering established institutions, while Burgan promotes old style collegial norms. These differences are evident in how they approach the issue of tenure. Burgan defends ensuring and extending tenure to larger portions of the professoriate. Her concern is exacerbated by the existence of a growing legion of contingent faculty on American campuses. Rhode is sympathetic to new models of academic employment and considers arguments that tenure is somewhat antiquated and does not meet the contemporary needs of some faculty and universities.
Both books cover broad topics and attempt to articulate suggestions for change. Rhode’s In Pursuit of Knowledge revisits recurrent critiques of academic scholarship, university teaching, faculty participation in administration and service, and their distancing from the role of public intellectuals. Burgan’s Whatever Happened to the Faculty also discusses the state of university education in chapters on professors and the curriculum. It criticizes the trend of online education (a topic that seems not quite as pressing as it did around 2000); the de-professionalization of the faculty through the increase in contingent instructors; and threats to academic freedom flowing from external interests. Chapter Five, wittily titled “A More Perfect Union”, goes over the relationship between the faculty, administration, and institutional governance—which lie at the core of the book’s argument.
Rhode argues that the obsession with prestige fuels the proliferation of irrelevant scholarship (particularly in the non-empirical social sciences and humanities), widens the gap between discipline-oriented scholars and the larger public, and disconnects professors from a deeper engagement with their university communities. Burgan concurs with this last point and also notes that the heightened preoccupation with prestige in the hiring practices of academic departments are detrimental to collegiality and a shared sense of purpose. She claims departments are absorbed into a “winner-take-all” competition for star faculty, which privileges hiring “feats,” whose main aim is to elevate the units’ standing in national reputation races. Negative consequences of this mentality, Burgan asserts, includes the demoralizing effects on faculty members who do not get the perks and high compensation of the newer hires and a disregard for how these new hires will operate within the department.
It is worth pondering, however, that reputation-seeking is an inherent part of science (broadly defined). Researchers gain prestige through substantive achievement—the recognition of achievement, to be more precise. As scientific investigation rose in importance on campuses over the previous 100 years, its contribution to academic eminence grew as well. A manifestation of this is the advent of multiple ranking systems, ranging from those of “best universities” to those of “the most highly cited scientists”, which all remain questionable.
Burgan is concerned with the disengagement of faculty from campus decision-making. She is careful not to point fingers in one single direction, though. If an administration increases its influence over a range of institutional affairs, the faculty are just as responsible for the status quo if they withdraw from active roles in academic senates and campus committees. Dedication to the discipline or profession, as opposed to the campus community or institutional service, underlies this trend. Rejecting managerialism from the top but uneasy with old style unionization, Burgan claims that “if professional interests and standards are to take precedence over profit, the faculty must unite and organize under one model or another.” (p.123) But which model can be pursued, as academic senates drift towards irrelevance, and unions are socially regarded with such suspicion? In the concluding chapter, Burgan declares that a “change of heart” is needed among faculty and administrators, and provides practical suggestions of how institutions can solve problems collectively, using illustrative cases.
No change of heart is suggested in The Pursuit of Knowledge, although it ends with a call for academia to live up to its ideals. The sins of frivolity, irrelevance, and alienation from pressing real-world concerns should be avoided, Rhode says, through adherence to longstanding institutional missions and professed academic values. The usual argument for greater accountability is offered as a solution to the various problems discussed, which gives the book a somewhat frustrating finale. The accountability spiel reads like “old news”— it has had no shortage of supporters over the past decades, and no original take on the document-and-report doctrine is offered.
The illnesses identified by Rhode and Burgan are, in fact, symptoms of structural features of American higher education. Historically highly decentralized, socially-embedded, and responsive to the needs of local interest groups, American colleges and universities had to cultivate their reputation vis-à-vis multiple publics. Institutional autonomy and growing organizational complexity propelled the expansion of an increasingly specialized administration. Nationally (and then internationally) articulated academic disciplines provided since early in the 20th century the social and intellectual venue for the development of research careers. Linked to the departmental structure of universities, this created the means for a mass system of advanced investigation and training. Of course, there is nothing sacred about these structural foundations, and criticism of their pernicious by-products. Nonetheless, the authors largely ignore the benefits of these arrangements.
Furthermore, rather than analyzing these features against known alternatives, by expanding the analysis outside of the circle of more prestigious research universities, or yet examining the situations of comparable countries – an alternative that Rhode dismisses in the first chapter — could have been fruitful. Faculty unions and associations are ubiquitous among Canadian universities, for example. The visceral reaction among some against the attempt by the faculty at the University of Minnesota to unionize, described by Burgan, raises interesting questions for comparative analysis. Have any of the anticipated negative effects to that organizing drive materialized in any of the Canadian institutions that could be reasonably compared to Minnesota? Unfortunately, we presently lack a comprehensive empirical understanding of this significant element of Canadian higher education. How do unions change campus decision-making? What are their effects on the negotiation of contractual arrangements for faculty?
Some of the trends underlying the issues discussed in these two volumes are relevant to Canada (and other countries with universities built on the Anglo-Saxon mold. The increasingly global model of the university, derived from the American system, has long been a source of influence in this country. In some ways, Canadian universities are moving in similar directions as their American counterparts, while retaining important differences.
Universities in Canada, as elsewhere, are operating within a turbulent environment. Over the past decade, they have been pressured to expand their commitment to education and research in an environment of relative financial austerity. Greater expectations to both increase access for traditional and non-traditional students and to produce world-class research have dominated policy debates on higher education, alongside calls for greater efficiency and accountability.
Dwindling public subsidies relative to the overall expansion of activities in universities set Canadian institutions into a path of bureaucratic rationalization, similar to that followed by their American peers. This phenomenon has been extensively discussed, analyzed, and decried over the past decade. The “ _______” university, with the blank filled with an adjective alluding to the ideas of “corporate”, “private”, or “competitive” is the basic title of several volumes (the word “crisis” has also been used extensively). To make do with their strained operating budgets, universities have resorted to the kind of restructuring seen in other fields in the public sector.
The continuing specialization of the central administration will go on, as old problems receive systematic attention and spur a new range of “professionals” (e.g. student affairs, fundraising), and new demands emerge. At research-oriented universities, large fractions of the faculty are likely to be driven towards international disciplinary communities, rather than campus concerns. For those, like Burgan, oriented towards campus community, this will be perceived as a problem.
One of the consequences of this environment relevant to the present discussion concerns the increase of adjunct and part-time faculty. A growing pool of contingent faculty members has been hired to deal with enrollment expansions, and they count on often-precarious working arrangements. Universities have resorted to part-time and non-tenure track instructors as they seek budgetary flexibility to accommodate greater numbers of students with strained operating budgets. Such faculty are poorly compensated and have little opportunity for professional development. This often leads, over time, to diminishing chances to re-enter the full-time, tenure-track job market. Interestingly, this has happened despite the more prevalent formal organization of collective bargaining on Canadian campuses noted above.
The growing ascendancy of university research over the past decade has been noticeable, especially in the natural sciences and engineering. With the substantial federal investments made in science since the late 1990s, universities have eagerly competed to produce more and better research. Prestige is attached to significant research activity, publications, and academic accolades. Smaller institutions have taken steps to participate in this race, while the likes of the University of Toronto, McGill University, and the University of British Columbia have aspired to even greater international recognition. This has highlighted differences across and within institutions in a system traditionally viewed as leaning towards homogeneity. Scientific research, particularly in the hot scientific disciplines of the day, such as biotechnology, genomics, and nanotechnology, consumes a never-ending stream of resources, both human and capital. University faculty thus furiously pursue external funding for research projects, new and enhanced laboratories, sophisticated equipment, graduate students, and other lab workers. A cadre of new administrative and technical staff has emerged to support the sprawling research operations.
The present expansion of academic research in Canadian universities has raised some of the same debates that have taken place in the U.S. since the 1960s. With the post-war boom in federal research funding, the internal stratification between the haves and have-nots was thought to widen and erode the academic community; teaching was displaced by research in institutional priorities and faculty preferences; and even undergraduate-focused universities attempted to emulate the large research institutions in pursuit of prestige. Indeed, a rather large number of Canadian institutions already call themselves research universities (– with “research-intensive” being today’s preferred qualifier). Even colleges today in some provinces, including Ontario, attempt to increase their research activities.
Has this led to the unproductive aspects of prestige-seeking decried by Rhode and Burgan? Inter-institutional competition in Canada is seemingly not as fierce as in the U.S. There are fewer players in each “league”, with about a dozen institutions performing around 80 per cent of federally-sponsored research. The Canadian tradition of less intense competition, decried by some as conducive to mediocrity, has not fostered a climate where the more wasteful manifestations of reputation races emerge, even if resources allowed them to. For a select group of universities, validation and legitimacy come from competition, real or perceived, in the emerging international ranks largely dominated by the American institutions criticized (and occasionally praised) in the two books.
In essence, Rhode and Burgan plead for the right combination of ambition and idealism, innovation and respect for traditional values. Getting it “just right”, placing the academic missions and legacies of the university first as universities adapt to changing social, economic, and political circumstances is a central problem for universities at the outset of this century. The challenge for those in higher education is to move beyond normative statements to find practical solutions to the various dilemmas we face.
Creso M. Sá is is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Theory and Policy Studies at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto.