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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 1998

The State of the University

Jennifer Mather

Study of American post-secondary education offers a balanced viewpoint on the university enterprise that we would do well to heed.

Academic Duty Donald Kennedy, Cambridge: Havard University Press, 1997; 310 pp; hardcover $29.95 US
Academic Duty is a thorough and insightful discussion about the state of the American university system which offers a great deal that is relevant to the Canadian one. Kennedy was a professor, then president of Stanford University, then a professor again. These perspectives seem to have resulted in a balanced viewpoint on the enterprise, which he unites in chapters on different aspects of it.

The first chapter sets out his basic premise that we ought to be concerned with academic duty (what we owe the profession) and less with academic freedom (what we can do). The university is more diverse than it ever was, and the public is more concerned with how it is doing its job. Subject matter is changing, and the Western Culture courses in Stanford offer lessons in our perception of what we ought to teach.

Similarly, who we are is changing. Preparing for the employment crunch has meant far more competitiveness for the tenured jobs. This leads not only to high anxiety and competition, but also to the rise of underemployed part-time and term teachers, as in Canada. Kennedy discusses how skimpily we prepare for the complex work of a professor.

The chapter To Teach, emphasizes what the author sees as the fundamental reason for the university and the professoriate. He lays out a clear case of our undervaluation of and poor preparation for it, despite its importance and difficulty. He is hopeful that new initiatives will help teaching gain its rightful primary place in universities. (This was a concern emphasized at the 1998 conference of The Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education at Mount Alison University, in a session on making teaching count.)

The chapter To Mentor offers a thoughtful overview of the interactions that take place as the teaching relationship moves more to apprenticeship. Kennedy covers two contentious issues, proper attribution of authorship and sexual harassment. The relevance of the first to Canadian universities is clear through the CAUT working paper and granting agencies' concern. The second was highlighted by the controversy at Simon Fraser University over the improper settlement of a sexual harassment case. He contends that these will be some of the most difficult issues for univer-sities to settle fairly, yet important ones nevertheless.

Academic Duty returns to the theme of what faculty owe the university, as we are central in its governance. Service is an often-neglected third part of our responsibility. Kennedy's focus on service to one's own university is too narrow, although the reminder that the professoriate is fundamental in the administration of universities is important. He gets off track with a discussion of whether tenure is important to professors, but makes the point that employing "parafaculty" is the university's version of outsourcing and a serious threat to that commitment.

The pressures on funding research and the growing outside influences that result from the search for research support are evaluated in To Discover. While these influences are less major in Canada they are growing, and restrictions on communication and incivility of competition are spreading here also. Kennedy's discussion of the political machinations involved in Stanford's audit by the Government Accounting Office make chilling reading and a reminder of what press coverage can do. His conclusion from this situation that "universities have to earn public trust and not simply count on it because they are doing good things for society" is an important one.

To Publish covers an important aspect of research communicating its results. The necessity for evidence of scholarship rather than the increase in knowledge may explain the explosion of published research. He sees the conflict between the ethos of inquiry as cooperation with objective search for truth and the pressure of competition for achievement, clearly visible in Canada as well. Again Kennedy reminds us that our academic duty is responsibility to students first. This continues in To Tell the Truth, touching on the controversies arising when academic misconduct is suggested. Several cases in the United States have been more sound and fury than actual cheating and Kennedy is clearly unhappy with their treatment. His assessment that we must be capable in our self-policing is a fair one.

To Reach Beyond the Walls shows us the decisions and pitfalls that arise when scholars have the opportunity to profit from research. This is mostly an object lesson for Canadian professors, but as the government advances university-industry cooperation in scientific research, that may change. The difficulty and complexity of making ethical decisions in these situations is a cautionary note for such involvements.

To Change asks where we in the universities will go. It touches on retirement, electronic communication and any bureaucratic system's slowness to change. Kennedy sees real promise in the recommitment to teaching which is exemplified in Canada by The Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, despite problems such as the age-old conflict between whether we should be "academic" or "relevant." Predictably, he wonders whether university presidents have enough opportunity to lead, and he concludes that faculty should be a force for change but feel under siege. His comment that "the faculty's confidence in the institution depends on a sense that its role is accepted, appreciated and protected" is a welcome one.

Kennedy's comment that universities are "society's agent for cultural transmission and cultural change" can underline the book's message. That is a big job, and any evaluation has to take that into consideration. In the first chapter, he points out that universities in the United States are prospering visibly despite the problems.

One quarter of the Canadian population now attends university, and my semester of teaching at a Japanese university has convinced me that comparatively we are doing an excellent job on these two duties. Kennedy's beliefs that we must return our major attention to our students and that university administration should support us in this commitment ring true in Canada, so let us hope that many people read the book and heed its lesson.

Professor Jennifer Mather is an associate professor in the department of psychology & neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge and a member of CAUT's Status of Women Committee.