Institution types

Exploring higher education's endless status games (essay)

A while back, I was reading letters of support for an award, and one of the letters contained a demeaning characterization of the home academic department of the candidate. While praising the candidate to the skies, the letter writer portrayed the department -- one of great prestige outside the candidate’s university -- as being of marginal status in the eyes of people in other academic disciplines within the institution. The letter writer wanted to assure anonymous evaluators like me that the candidate was of much higher intellectual quality than the candidate’s discipline would suggest.

Boy, am I sick of this academic snobbery.

What I read is not without its irony, however -- worthy of the most trenchant portrayals of academic life. (Think David Lodge’s Small World or Richard Russo’s Straight Man.) The discipline of the snooty letter writer is one that I heard routinely ridiculed when I was studying and then teaching in an English department.

And so it goes in the academic status games.

Applied disciplines (such as journalism, nursing, management) have less status than “pure” ones: philosophy, biology, mathematics. And within disciplines, there is typically a status hierarchy, with theoretical pursuits having more dazzle than applied work. Art history and musicology trump the making of art or music. The theoretical mathematician has the status edge on the applied statistician. The literary theorist sits on a higher rung -- much higher -- than those in academe who teach writing.

Of course, such status dynamics are not absolute -- they are ignored, even subverted, by some faculty members, and an institution’s history and current reality come into play, as well. And in our era of the “entrepreneurial university” and economic accountability, traditional academic status markers might increasingly lessen in importance; what will count will be enrollment numbers and the employability prospects of a given major.

Still, as someone who has spent decades at a research university running a tutorial center and a freshman composition program, and then residing in a school of education -- all quite low in that disciplinary hierarchy -- I can tell you that judgments of intellectual virtue based on disciplinary affiliation are alive and well. They factor into all sorts of behaviors and decisions, from departmental funding to faculty promotion to the letters written for honors and awards -- like the one I read.

We have not even considered the more pronounced status differentials among various units at the college or university: for example, student services versus academic departments. And then there are the loaded status distinctions that people make among the different kinds of institutions of higher education in the United States: the community college versus the state college or university versus the research university -- with research universities scrambling to climb to the top of their own heap.

All professions generate status distinctions, so why should the field of higher education be any different? Fair enough; I take the point. But the thing that gets to me in all this is that distinctions are made through narrow and self-interested attributions of intelligence that hardly reflect the variety of ways people use their minds to acquire and apply knowledge, to reason, plan and solve problems. Furthermore, intelligence doesn’t reside inert in a discipline or a kind of work or in one segment of a system rather than another; intelligence emerges in activity and in context.

The attributions of intelligence I’m concerned with have much more to do with the preservation of power and prestige and turf rather than helping us all -- faculty members, administrators and students -- improve on what we do. Faculty members don’t get better at teaching by luxuriating in their bona fides or looking down on the department across the quad.

This last point about getting better at educating is at the center of a recent book by one of my colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, Alexander Astin, an expert on higher education in the United States. In Are You Smart Enough? Astin argues that colleges -- especially “elite” colleges -- are more concerned with acquiring status markers of intelligence (high GPAs and test scores among entering students, faculty publication numbers, and so on) rather than creating the conditions for students to become more intelligent during their time in college. Instead of the competing to attract students already identified as smart, Astin wonders, what if colleges put increased effort into helping more students become smarter through greater attention to teaching, mentoring and enrichment activities? It’s a provocative and important question.

Back now to that letter. Over the years, I’ve spent time in many sectors of higher education, from a medical school to a community college tutoring center, and one of the things that has most struck me is the distribution of intelligence across the domains of the enterprise. To be sure, I’ve observed the routine pursuit of trivial research, uninspired teaching, unimaginative management and tireless self-promotion. A whole host of sins spread across areas of study and levels of the system. But I’ve also witnessed insight and inspiration, deeply humane problem solving, and moments of brilliance in both a writing and a mathematics classroom, a counseling session, a meeting of tutorial center coordinators, a laboratory, and a library. No little domain has a lock on being smart.

Mike Rose is a research professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education and The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker (The New Press, 2012).

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