Mary Burgan, former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, is not happy about the trends she sees with regard to faculty rights. Traditional governance models are being replaced with strict hierarchies, and too many faculty members have too little influence in crucial decisions, she writes, in What Ever Happened to the Faculty? Drift and Decision in Higher Education, just published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Burgan recently responded to questions about the themes of her book.
Q: You have a chapter on the "myth of the bloviating professor" and you frequently talk about other misconceptions about professors. What are the most dangerous misunderstandings of the professoriate and why are they so widely held?
A: The most dangerous stereotype is that professors are overpaid and underworked. Such a view focuses only on the faculty in privileged positions where the teaching schedules are gauged to inspire research productivity and the pay, though never so astronomical as pay for outstanding achievement outside the academy, makes for a nice life -- especially given the pleasant environment of reasonably well kept campuses. But such faculty are a diminishing group, for the bulk of academicians in today’s environment of downsizing, outsourcing, and unbundling of professional work do not have such cushy lives. Further, under this diminishment even privileged, “full” faculty find themselves burdened with increased administrative and supervisory responsibilities as well as the unending mandate to “keep up with the field.” I don’t want to overplay their pity story, of course; those who manage to get tenure in higher education are indeed fortunate. They can spend their lives thinking and teaching and serving the higher good in many ways; that kind of autonomy is rare.
But I do want to emphasize the fact that the source of the stereotype is a devaluation of intellectual work in general. Our culture tends to think that the only work worth paying for is work that produces some tangible, often short-term profit. And so professors who produce computer scientists, MBA’s, or genetic technicians may be considered worth their salaries. All the others are simply ... overpaid and underworked. Such a devaluation of the complexity of knowledge fails to address the value of such mental activities as puzzling through difficult crises in human history, understanding the diversity of cultures, learning the languages of the rest of the world, or patiently and critically clarifying the values we should live by. Current history shows that failure to honor such work can lead to catastrophic results.
Q: You are quite critical of distance learning. Do you think distance learning is by definition bad, or just that the examples you cite reflect certain programs that may not have been well planned and thought out?
A: I wouldn’t condemn distance learning outright, of course, just as I wouldn’t condemn the book -- that older technological discovery that changed education for everyone. Both of these innovations can be lifesavers for those who can’t get education any other way. What I do deplore is the notion that because some students can learn through such resources, they offer the magic key to all learning. I do not believe that higher education can dispense with real time and place contacts -- which require campuses and teachers -- by turning it over to the Internet, albeit with generous accommodation of chat rooms and the like. That notion is convenient economically; it relieves society of having to provide expensive campuses and professors for everyone, and it facilitates an entry of the profit competition into higher education as never before.
But the hype for distance ed ignores the essential social contract involved in the teaching/learning exchange as enacted in live settings. Most cultures have viewed such an exchange as a sacred, communal duty -- one that involves socialization as well as the intake of information. In setting up their educational systems, they have also declared the usefulness of a “moratorium” for learners, especially adolescent learners, so that such novices can test their understanding in environments that permit exploration of individual talents, encounters with unfamiliar personality styles, and the experience of life in the context of communal effort. Further, the presence of teacher and learner in such traditional systems leads to mutual insights that are essential in intergenerational understanding. I don’t think that this rich process can happen in distance education -- valuable as individual courses can be for the mastery of particular bits of knowledge or practice. Finally, a pressing concern about distance education is that it has been the tool for entrepreneurs who seek to turn higher education into a corporate enterprise -- complete with advertising come-ons, lobbying for access to federal funding and accreditation, and questionable accountability. Such enterprises can’t offer the benefits I value, and don’t think they ought to.
Q: How do distance learning and other trends -- such as the quest for research that will produce patents and royalties -- play into the relative power (or erosion of power) of faculty members?
A: The conversion of colleges and universities into knowledge factories that produce profit also turns faculty into cogs in the machine, or gigabytes in the hard drive. They can be rewarded fabulously, or course, if they hit the right discovery or win the right patent, but when the only power in the academy is money power, faculty influence dwindles. It’s not just that the money-makers get all the respect, they get all the resources too -- colleagues, staff, graduate students. As an English professor, I worry about the eclipse of those core faculty who do the basic, foundational work of undergraduate education -- like teaching critical thinking, writing, basic math and science -- by those who do graduate teaching and research only. Some faculty members have bought into this system, but many more worry about the way it diminishes their control of educational standards. I share that worry.
Q: One of the major trends in the academic job market these days is the growing use of adjuncts. Does that trend make it impossible for professors to regain more power over higher ed?
A: I believe that the faculty as a whole must address the issue of adjuncts by embracing all their instructional colleagues as integral members of the professoriate. Without incorporating the rising numbers of adjuncts, the faculty is permitting its power to leach out into an increasingly potent mixture of managerial faddism and rank exploitation that is too often characterized by bureaucratic carelessness. As the system has become more and more dependent on adjuncts, “regular” faculty have little contact with them. Tenured and tenure-track faculty members frequently have little idea about the number of adjuncts their institutions depend on, for example, and few confront the stark facts about how much individual adjuncts teach and for how little money. Thus faculty in many schools abet a stratification that blinds them to the inequities of their situation, and so work in a constant state of bad faith. It may be that faculty unionization is the only force that can turn the tide, but such collective action will need to command the respect of faculty at all levels to be really successful.
Q: When administrators hear faculty complaints about governance, a frequent reply is: I'd love professors to be involved, but they hold endless committee meetings and are afraid of making tough decisions. What would you say to those who say professors are responsible for being excluded from decisions because of the way they act?
A: Administrators do find it annoying to have to listen to people who are trained to be suspicious of bureaucracies. But they are frequently right about the faculty’s lack of executive drive or political good sense. I believe that every graduate program, in every discipline, should institute some kind of course in academic citizenship. Such a course, or course segment, would be designed to inform potential faculty members about the basics of self-governance. By “basics,” I mean not only theories about governance, but also practical texts like Robert’s Rules of Order, the local faculty handbook, and the AAUP Red Book. A short survey of the history of American higher education would be useful too. And the course might want to take a look at some Dilbert cartoons to understand how organizations can tangle themselves up in stupidities. Of course, Dilbert also reveals that governance idiocy is not limited to university and college campuses!
Q: What is your advice to faculty members who want to see professors play more of a role in the way academe is run?
A: I would advise them to serve conscientiously on important departmental and school committees (and to know which are important and which aren’t worth their time). I would also advise them to stand for office in their faculty senate and/or to be active in their local faculty union; neither of these instruments of faculty authority can be effective without participation by rank and file faculty. I would urge them to be aware of and support the wider range of civic activities in their professional organizations. And finally, I would say that unless they are deeply concerned about teaching at all levels, including K-12, they will not be able to make much of a difference. Traditional faculty power has derived not only from research achievements but from the American academy’s engagement with our public schools. In turning away from training and supporting school teachers as a primary responsibility in every major department -- not just in the School of Education, higher education has lost a lot of its credibility with the public.
My book is titled What Ever Happened to the Faculty? By that title I meant to imply that the faculty have been made irrelevant in many discussions and decisions about education through forces that are almost beyond their control. But teaching is not beyond their control, and so my title also challenges my own colleagues. I am haunted by the image of a first-year student, just out of high school, wandering through some campus searching for a real, live teacher there.